Grim Tidings

If you have lived almost any kind of active life, after age 50 someone you know dies every day. Not necessarily someone you knew well. Not necessarily a spouse, a child, a parent—one of those whose death is like a part of yourself, crushed and torn away. But someone you knew, yes: an acquaintance, a familiar name and face, a hand shook and a meeting remembered.

You worked with one of them for a while, maybe; not friends, exactly, just officemates and colleagues, but still the kind of person whose funeral you know you should get dressed up for. Drive across town to attend. Another you knew from church, every Sunday for years. Yet another from neighborhood association meetings. Another from your children’s softball league.

Even the butcher. You weren’t best buddies or anything. Still, you got along in an easy kind of way, always smiling a greeting at each other, trading some quip down at the grocery store while you looked at the lamb chops. Then one day you realize that you haven’t seen the man for a while, so you ask after him. What a haunting phrase English gives us: to ask after. And you learn that he’s gone. Just gone. Slipped away the month before.

And then there are the older people you admired in your field: the white-hairs, the established figures you felt honored to meet as you were finding your way. They begin to fall away in flurries when you reach middle age. Every week or so, another obituary. Every month or so, another wake to dress for.

Mostly, however, it’s just the ordinary procession: the hearses that besiege us, the funerals that blacken our days. The high-school newsletters can start to seem like a series of cenotaphs, the alumni magazines a set of catafalques, the church bulletins an array of plaques.

You sat next to one of those lost acquaintances at a mutual friend’s dinner party, out in the suburbs. You talked with another at a conference, then ran into him again, surprisingly, at the wedding of a colleague’s son. You’d read something another had written, seen her in the news, and been introduced twice—and were surprised that she’d remembered your name. You had a drink with yet another, whenever he was passing through town. And though you didn’t spend enough time together to have what might honestly be called a friendship, you took to each other. Took to each other, another of those haunting English phrases. You shared a mild affinity: the fond acquaintanceship that is busy people’s simulacrum of the deeper friendship for which they lack time or proximity.

Genuine grief would turn the world inside out, if it could. We speak of ghosts as pale and insubstantial, but in grief—the real thing, the fierce inconsolable anguish at the death of a loved one—the dead seem more tangible than the living. The absent more material than the present. In the inverted world of sorrow, the missing person exists in sharp detail, and the ordinary world retreats: a dull, gray tabescence. When we mourn, the dead are not ghostly. The rest of reality is what comes to seem unreal.

That is not quite what we feel in the dying-away of acquaintances. Not quite the experience of the daily news of death. We do not mourn, in the full sense of that brutal word, at the death of those we did not know well. We are merely bereaved—bereft of a small portion of the world as we remember it. Saddened. Lessened. And the obituary pages are the measure of our lessening.

The answer, of course, is not to read the obituary pages. My father was a great believer in this solution. In these more recent days of email and push notices, Twitter and Facebook, avoiding news proves more difficult, but you can probably keep yourself out of the loop, if you try hard enough. Keep yourself in the dark.

Unfortunately, the fact of daily loss remains true even when we don’t know it. In the highest of moral senses, this may be the most vile portion of the human condition—that to live is to have to see others die. But even in a lesser sense, it’s an ugly thing. To age is to watch the world erode, the people we knew slipping away. Every day, another one.

To dwell on the thought .  .  . but then, we don’t dwell on it, do we? We can’t and still function. So we don’t, which is undoubtedly the healthy and wise thing to do. But I heard some news last night about an old acquaintance. The old news, heard again and again, and I feel as though my skin has worn away.