The father of a dear friend died last month. In relaying the news to me, he said his father had “passed.” My mind immediately sought a grammatical object, knowing full well that the misery of massive medical interventions had finally ended for his father, my mind still asked what he had passed, his exams, another car, the cookies?
I know this is irreverent and I also know that the verb “to pass” has come to mean “to die” and that the unspoken prepositional phrase that succeeds the infinitive in this context is “into the next world.” I still struggle, however, when hearing that someone has “passed” and still find myself filling in the blank of the missing object.
I think my struggle with this usage of the verb “to pass” comes from knowing how deeply our society has come to deny the aging process and death itself. We seek euphemisms to Disneyfy the image of an elderly person or the ultimate reality of their death.
It is not so in the rest of the world where death is more familiar and seen as the crowning achievement of old age. The wisdom accrued over a long and virtuous life is revered and integrated into the family and into society at large, rather than stowed away from the imagined relevance of daily life.
The old saying about “those not knowing history are condemned to repeat it” is true at the smaller scale of family as well. Every death is the culmination of a life of learning, observation and history. The great gift to children of having two generations of parents at hand to assist with the challenges of growing up is lost without easy access to older generations. Isolating the elderly in institutions and death behind curtains is a sad adaptation. When I was young it was not so often the case. Many still died in their homes where a wake was then held.
In most other cultures, social status, reverence and authority grow with age. As the physical work life demands slow, the emotional and intellectual contribution to family and social life increases.
So why then does our post-industrial culture isolate us from the rare beauty of old age and an intimacy with death? Is it “anti-esthetical” as my wife’s 82-year old ballet teacher used to tell his young charges? Does it remind us of our own aging and mortality? Do we imagine that exposure to old age and dying will offend our children? If so, we do them a disservice. They are not born with our fears. We impart them and so perpetuate the isolation of the elderly.
Encourage them to spend more time with old people and to be with them as they lie dying. Several friends have told me that the greatest gift in their lives as been to be with a loved one at the moment of their death.
We will never understand and achieve an appropriate healthcare system until we reacquaint ourselves with the beauty of old age and death.