In 1983, a friend of mine died. It was sudden and unexpected. I rang others to tell them. In that moment of conversation I knew which of them had loved him and by exactly how much. That, at least, was my conviction at the time. And indeed still.

It is just about the saddest of all truths that if you sit by the riverbank long enough the bodies of your chums will float past. You have to work at your hating for you will never get as bitter as you would like. An old enemy dies and notionally floats past – you feel nothing very much; but if a friend dies you feel stabbed.

I have long since parted company with those who insist that ageing brings insight, maturity, contentment or any such. The old grey water is not lovely. Bodily decrepitude is not wisdom, as the poet should have said. You can be 75, in rude health, loved by your family, pensioned to the hilt, active in professional or quasi-professional ways  –  but you cannot escape the grim commonality, the gruesome inevitability of bereavement. The paths of your glory will, whatever, lead to a graveside somewhere and probably quite soon, again. Ageing is gross and it takes guts, even if you have none at the start (whenever that is).

There is a definitive passage in Terre des hommes. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is reviewing the life of an airline pilot, one often shortened due to the hazards explicit in the pre-War years of the job. What with all the journeying, you do not see your mates all that often; indeed you might well casually hear that they have actually died and you are not going to see them again at all. This gives a special piquancy to the encounters which chance does occasionally throw your way and, even though you may not see them all that frequently, your friends are somehow always out there, faithfully waiting for you. Nothing replaces an old friend for he or she is someone whom you cannot manufacture. “It is in vain, if you plant an oak, to expect to shelter soon under its foliage”. Old friends will disappear and  –  here is the killer  –  “to our grief will, from now on, be mixed the secret sorrow of growing old”.  (Informal translations : Rinkli Funstaz)

Once a university friend of mine died, after years of poor health. Looking back, there was a period of some 17 years during which I did not see him at all and we exchanged but limited words. That this made no difference is something I find difficult to acknowledge or explain. And it was truly years after his passing that I felt the fullest grief; it happened, randomly engulfing me, as I was once walking towards a taxi rank. I knew it already but I learned again that day that bereavement does not need to   –  not the right word  –  bloom (boom?) when the news breaks or at the funeral. It can sneak into your home via the back-door and smack you on the head much later on a perfectly happy or indeed a perfectly ordinary day.

There is another dimension here. Somewhere in Montaigne, the author is asked why he is friendly with a certain other man. “Parce que c’était lui; parce que c’était moi” came the famous reply, one we are taught to admire for both its simplicity and its depth. But I am not so sure. How often does a speech at a funeral reveal something that you, listening reverentially on the wooden seats, did not know?  Your friend was a unitarian? A recovering alcoholic? A distant father to three kids outside his regular family? A rom-com devotee?  A lifelong fan of Coventry FC? A published poet? An accomplished cook? A gambler? A trustee of several charities? How often have you come away from a funeral wishing you had really known the deceased a lot better than you thought you did? And yet you were, so it seemed, the big pal.

There are some heartbreaking moments towards the end of The Dead by James Joyce. The protagonist, Gabriel, realises that, despite their years together, he has not really noticed and certainly not been appreciated by his wife. This comes after the revelation that a young boy once died for the love of the early Gretta; at their final encounter many years in the past, Michael had said, now that she was leaving town, that “he did not want to live”. Retroactively, Gabriel rather admires his passion but is beset by the notion that mortality is all around him, all human connection corrupted along the way by partial or withheld truths.

But the reality is that all friendship tolerates only so much honesty and disclosure. St Ex says that what makes the desert interesting is that it somewhere hides a well. Well, what makes a friend interesting is the knowledge that a secret is nesting in that breast.

But if friendship is a kind of magic, then bereavement is a cold, dark theatre, now closed forever. There is no preparing for it. It will bash your soul at any age. Nothing is more crushing than an hour spent sitting with a friend who you both know is dying.

The news was brought recently that another old friend had died. That I had not seen or heard from him in several decades is currently a subject neither of regret nor nostalgia. No attempt had been made to find him or learn of his condition. But I now vividly recall all his kindnesses and his comedies. Friendship is essentially an event, a passing luck-fest, an intimacy that might well wither just as it blossoms. But even if this is true, news of the death will still cut you down. My friend, a student of similar impoverishment, used to make me hot buttered toast; he maintained a touching faith in its restorative powers. That I cannot now make some for him is, no matter how impossible and no matter how silly, a sadness for me now. We used to tire the sun with talking. But the script has long since changed and, anyways, it is not ours anymore.

There are around 11 million people in the UK in the 65+ category. And if you reach the age of 65, the chances are you will live for another 20 years. This means, inter alia, lots of funeral services, lots of eulogies, lots of goodbyes. And yes, ageing  –  well, there is no real alternative  –   makes all this worse, makes these occasions more numerous. (Source : ONS)

Your best friend will probably soon die of cancer and so, you might think, let’s get ready!  Unfortunately, no-one can get ready. The death of the loved other will, no matter how many mindfulness exercises you have done, jab you, sooner or later, like a prize-fighter’s stinger.  In every given year more than a third of all cancer cases in the UK are diagnosed in people aged 75+. (Source : Cancer Research UK).

It is a strange truth also that bereavement can strike hard even when you barely knew the deceased (and perhaps did not realise how much you loved the person) or even when a remote celebrity is involved. One can still recall the day of Freddie Mercury’s passing, for example, with a crisp spasm of regret. One can never pass through Kensington in London without thinking of Ava Gardner, who died there many years ago.

When in college I studied the works of Unamuno and learned his proposition about the “tragic sense of life”; as the years pass, one assumes that this is ever more cumulatively true. As implied, there is just no point in anticipating anyone’s mortality, no point in telling all persons today how you feel about them just in case they croak. It never works. No surer way, in fact, of ruining life. Imagine a friend hears you tell him how fond you have always been of him. Most people in such a circumstance would assume that you were having some kind of episode. Or had taken to drinking too much.  Or both. Living is not a football game; it abhors live commentary.

Claudius admonishes young Hamlet for taking too long to grieve his father’s death. Now obviously, the new king had an agenda, involving both leadership of Denmark and also leadership of Gertrude. But there is iron in his word. Nobody really wants to hang long at the funeral parlour. Nobody really reveres those who spend too much time with the dead. Our better graces tell us to move outwards and onwards as soon as the vicar closes his prayerbook or the flames call forth the coffin. “I can’t remember if I cried”, quite so, “when I read about his widowed bride”.  If it hits you, let it hit  –  you will in time re-adjust to life, whether you want to do this or not. It may, of course, pummel you years later. Sad but often ineluctable.  By the way, if invited to a post-service happening, drink nothing stronger than tea; there is nothing to celebrate. And if you never liked the deceased person, do not go at all. For there is no decent inn.

“Alone. The word is life endured and known”, a poet once wrote. “It is the stillness where our spirits walk and all but inmost faith is overthrown”. Again not totally sure. Even if you believe in resurrection, a death, expected or not, will still grind like a suddenly infected gall bladder. With no pharmaceutical help, you just have to deal with it as well as you can for the spirit cannot be nurtured in advance. “There lives”, rather, “within the very flame of love a kind of wick or snuff that will abate it”. And there is no point is expecting that your grief can be shared and thus minimised; we are talking about the most intensely personal feeling, not communicable to others, others who will assume they know. But do not. Not really.

And the angrier you might grow?  Just remember that the dead cannot lie, nor do they justify.

Life as you age, eh? Such a bowl of over-ripe cherries

One Comment

  • Beautifully written, wistful and poignant. I have been grieving the loss of my husband for three years and it doesn’t get easier. But if I have to continue on then I will be as positive and upbeat as I can about getting older because the alternative is deeper sadness and life is too short for that.

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