When I was in nursing school, an “elderly” instructor (she must have been at least 60)
asked our class,
“Is the death of a young person a greater loss than the death of an old person?”
The oldest student was maybe 30. Unanimously, we agreed that the death of a young person is the greater loss. The instructor’s expression let us know she did not agree,
“All deaths are a great loss. No one wants to die. As nurses, you’ll do well to remember this.”
My first nursing job was in pediatrics. I remained in pediatrics for 15 years, and my student perception of the death of a young person being a greater loss than the death of an old person was never challenged. However, now that I am an adult oncology nurse, I have a better understanding of what our nursing instructor was trying to teach us that day.
Few people would argue that the death of an older person is sadder than that of a young person, but that’s not what my nursing instructor had asked. She asked, “Which is the greater loss?” The losses are equal, but for different reasons.
The death of a young person is a great loss because the world loses a potential Picasso, Hemingway, or Madame Curie. The parents of the youth lose the legacy of grandchildren who may have been born to their child. If grandchildren are already born, they lose a parent. The dying youth loses a full lifetime of experiences, love, joy, and sadness — the bittersweet fruit of a ripe old age. A piece of hope dies with them.
When an old person dies, the world loses a Gandhi, Rosa Parks, or Mother Theresa. More commonly suffered are the loss of a spouse, a parent, a close friend, or confidant. We lose someone with whom we share common history and memories. Upon death, an old person takes a piece of life from those left behind. With this understanding, I sit at the bedside of elderly patients, holding their hands as they grieve out loud their cancer diagnosis and impending deaths. I grieve their loss as greatly as I did the loss of my pediatric patients.
Nurses know that every passing life is a loss and there’s peace in knowing there’s no need to judge.