When Older Adults Think of the Dead

In a recent post about the unprocessed emotions that many older adults accumulate, I quoted a line by 93-year-old essayist Roger Angell to the effect that advanced age provides plenty of opportunities for bad news. Angell also describes his experiences with loss; in this post I’ll reflect on some of what he says on that subject.

Angell writes the following:

“We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming.”

Roger Angell. Photo: The New Yorker.

Roger Angell. Photo: The New Yorker.

I know dozens of people who have died, though, at age 65, I’m just getting started on my portfolio of the deceased. At age 88, my mother has lost many more friends, family, and aquaintences than I have. She may at this point know more dead people than living ones (my dad, who has dementia, lives in the present, so the dead are truly departed to him). Angell’s experience seems to be mom’s as well—she definitely misses some people, but she’s not buried under the accumulation of losses.

Angell indicates that someone long gone can suddenly appear in memory, often through a mental doorway opened by some sensation redolent of that person—a gesture, a tone of voice, a physical feature, an item of clothing. Names belonging to the departed come readily to mind; he notes, “I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting.” He then asks this question: “Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this.”

One answer may be that memories are animating; detailed and lifelike memories enliven the person for us. Those in the grave may be dead, but they aren’t gone. The Reminiscence Functions Scale (RFS), a questionnaire asking people why they reminisce, has a scale assessing reminiscence for the sake of “Intimacy Maintenance”—thinking about someone in order to maintain a connection with them. The idea seems to be that keeping such connections is important even if there is pain associated with the loss.

I asked my mom what she thinks about those who have died. She indicated that she thinks much more about the good times she shared with them than she does about losing them. She said that it feels good to have known them and to have been a part of their lives. She added that it helps to know that they are in a better place—she is a devout Christian, as were most people she knows who have died.

Who knew that, as we join the ranks of the old old, thinking of those we lost can cheer and sustain us rather than weighing us with sorrow? It’s one of several reasons why old age isn’t nearly as bleak as the young imagine it to be.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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2 Responses to When Older Adults Think of the Dead

  1. John Steigenga says:

    Interesting reflections, Bob. They trigger a trip into my own “bulging directory” of people I’ve known, or maybe I should say that I know. A mistake people sometimes make is thinking that it hurts too much to bring up the name of a deceased loved one, whereas in fact it is usually welcomed. The dead are physically gone but they live on in our minds and hearts; it’s good to talk about them.

    • bobritzema says:

      Thanks for your comment, John; I agree completely with you. Those who have died live within us. In many cases, we dialogue internally with them. It is usually appreciated when someone cares enough to express interest in that conversation.

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