When a Friend’s Mom Dies “Old” – and Yours Died “Young”




Mom at party


I was standing in my kitchen yesterday when my close friend Liz called. Her mother had died. She was 92-years-old and was in failing health.

My mom died in 1981 when I was 28 and she was 54. She died “young”. I guess you could say that Liz’s mom died “old.”

Does it make it easier on a daughter (or son) if your mom dies at a ripe old age?

Or does it make it harder to lose her since you had her in your life for many more years?

When I sat down earlier today to write Liz a sympathy note – yes, handwritten, yes on personal stationery, yes, very old-school, just the way my mom taught me to do – I wasn’t sure what to say.

In my head I think Liz was pretty lucky. Her mom lived to see grandchildren. Mine did not. Her mom was around to answer questions in Liz’s young mom days. Mine was not. Her mom was an honored guest at the weddings of two of her grandchildren. Mine never had that chance.

I’m not sure Liz saw it that way. The last few years for her mom were rough ones. No matter the number of calls or visits, and Liz was a most devoted caregiver, her mom was always lonely. Liz was busy, worked hard, had her own life; her mom’s life had narrowed.

Perhaps Liz doesn’t even remember what her mom was like in the prime years of her life.

Whereas that is the only way I can think of mine. Age 54. Active, vibrant, on the go. Back to school to get another master’s degree in education. Volunteering in good causes. Taking on leadership roles in non-profits. Hosting family holidays. Watching my sister and I move through our twenties into grad school, boyfriends, marriages, lives.

Then on a random Tuesday – poof – my mom was there one night and the next morning she was gone. I didn’t know she was dying. She didn’t either. (I hope) Am I jealous that Liz got to be with her mom to ease her through her later years as best she could? Or am I secretly jealous that I didn’t have to bear that burden of elderly care-giving?

Likely I would have had many less than admirable caregiver moments. I can be impatient. I might have thought it a personal imposition to give up my time to meet my aging mother’s needs, to take her to endless doctor’s appointments, to deal with insurance, hospitals and aides. I didn’t have to deal with any of that. As Liz ably did.

What do I write to Liz?

“Sorry for your loss.”

Ridiculously trite and also untrue because while I am sorry, and it is a loss, her mother is not going to ever be found. She is permanently gone. There is no death lost and found of which I am aware.

“Hoping your memories will be of comfort.”

This is a phrase I have trotted out before. It is marginally helpful because memories over time do provide some comfort. But then they start to fade. In the first few years after my mom died, she made regular appearances in my dreams. But now I must look at photos to recapture a sense of what she looked and can only guess at what she sounded like.

What I like to do when I write notes of sympathy is to share my own memories of the person who died.

Recalling how Liz’s mom would show up for a visit carrying packages of chicken in her suitcase because the chicken she could buy in New Jersey tasted better than anything you could buy in the DC area.

The time we took Liz’s mom to the beach for the weekend; she loved seeing the ocean again, told me it reminded her of living near the shore when she was raising her family.

When Liz’s mom was in the hospital, I visited her and brought her some chocolate truffles. Liz’s mom, like Liz, was a chocolate connoisseur. After eagerly accepting the candy, she promptly hid the box in the top drawer of the table next to her hospital bed. She did not want to share her chocolates with anyone. I liked that about Liz’s mom.

I happened to be in her hospital room that day when a doctor stopped by – and he stood by the door, barely inside her room. He didn’t even greet Liz’s mom, just started to bark out information and orders.

Not on my watch. I spoke right up and urged the doctor to come in, to stand right next to her bed, I told him that Liz’s mom had very poor eyesight and hearing. She couldn’t see or hear him. He needed to walk into the room, all the way, please, and stand by her bed.

The doctor asked me who I was. I admitted I was not a relative. He finally deigned to stroll into the room to stand next to his patient’s bed and talk directly to her – not at her. A small victory.

I didn’t do much for Liz’ s mom over the years. Not as much as I should have or could have. I listened to Liz when she called me, when she was worried about her mom and when she complained about her, too.

I don’t know that I would have done as much as I should or could have for my mom either. Had she lived. But she didn’t. Liz’s mom did. And Liz now has her memories which I hope will be of comfort.





Filed under 1st Grandchild, Aging, Aging Parents, Baby Boomers, Communications, daughters, Family, Female Friends, friendship, Letters, Moms, Talking, Women, Writing

34 responses to “When a Friend’s Mom Dies “Old” – and Yours Died “Young”

  1. Lovely and meaningful words, Nancy! Especially the specific memories which “Liz” will always appreciate.


  2. Chris

    It doesn’t matter that Liz had her mother for X number of years, or that at age 92, her mother had lived a good long life, What matters is that Liz loved her, and that her death leaves a void in Liz’s life. No matter our own ages, we are still our parents’ children, and losing them is hard.


  3. Michele Edelmuth

    My father had a heart attack which left him with severe brain damage at age 68. He struggled on for 7 years, unable to communicate or comprehend what was going on, or care for himself. My mother became a full time care giver to him. It was a labor of love but it took it’s toll on her life and that of her grandchildren. So when people share their grief of a loved ones passing I want to say, “you are lucky he/she went quickly.” But I don’t because it sounds callous. When my father died in 2010 I only remembered the brain damaged father. Recently memories of my pre-heart attack Dad have replaced those. He now lives on, as he was, in my mind.


  4. My husband’s dad is 87 and declining quickly. It is very, very sad. BUT. It is a privilege to grow old. I lost my dad at 59 to a horrible, wasting disease. What wouldn’t I have given to have had him in my life for even another year, or five years, or two weeks? Randy’s dad has been at 3 of his grandchildren’s weddings, and has seen the birth of two great granchildren. Yes, we are all very sad to see him like this…but he has had a long, full life. Because of that, our memories will be comforting, and I hope Liz is comforted by her mom’s long life as well.


  5. btw, you look so much like your mom!


  6. Sharing memories is a wonderful way to send condolences I think. A friend of mine who knew she was dying really struggled with knowing she would not be around to be a Grandmother, Mother-in law for her kids. I remember her saying she wished her kids had married younger! There are no good answers to when death happens that is for sure.


  7. Sindy Malin

    Beautifully written as always Nancy.


  8. Patty Kusovitsky

    No age is good to loose a parent. Young or old is tough. I miss both of our moms. They were very special women. My fondest memory besides ski trips to Vermont was ringing the doorbell in elementary school and your mother always so cheery. She would offer me something to eat and talk about the plans for the day. She would pull out the bottom drawer to put her feet up on as she sipped her coffee. Great lady!!!!


  9. Diana Watt

    Thank you Nancy, for articulating thoughts that have rattled around my head from time to time. My mother died of cancer when I was 13 years old, and now at almost 60, I’ve wondered the same things you have while listening to my friend’s stories about aging parents. I’ve felt some guilt because I feel relieved I haven’t had to deal with the difficult issues of care through age-related decline and failing health of parents. My dad has passed away too, but a younger step-mother very capably handled 100% his care single-handedly, as we were living many states away at the time. These things are what they are, but it was good to hear you give voice to complicated emotions.


  10. Cindy

    It took me a couple of weeks to read this because I just went through the same thing. A friend’s Mom just passed away at 86 and my Mom died at 55 in a car wreck. I was 28 and 7 months pregnant. It wasn’t fair she wouldn’t meet my son or be around to watch him and his sister grow up. I was so angry. I felt the same way as you and wondered is it any easier when your Mom is old. Maybe not. But I sure would have liked to have the chance to know firsthand. Thanks for sharing your story.


    • Cindy – and thank you for sharing your story! Nancy


    • Amanda Schaeffer

      Thanks for sharing this. My mom died at 52 and I was 27. She never was able to come to my wedding or meet my children. I appreciated reading this article because this is something that I I have wondered about often. I am now a social worker for hospice and I have realized it hurts at any age to see people leave this earth. My experience personally and professionally reminds me how it is important to let those around us know how much they are loved!


  11. Terri Hunter

    My mom was 77 when she went on to Glory. She was such a young 77–volunteering in my classroom every Friday, cooking family dinner for her whole tribe every Monday, taking care of my daddy, gardening, canning, visiting friends, and traveling. It was her year of Jubilee, and she only got to enjoy it one month. I still feel cheated, and I think many times how much I still want her. She always put me first, and even in her passing she spared me from having to make difficult decisions about our intertwined lives.


  12. Ellen

    It’s all realtime, I guess. My mom was 42 and I was 14, when “Poof,” she was killed in an automobile accident. She was young. She never got to meet my children, much less my grandchildren. Now I am 70 and she has been dead 56 years and I still miss her!


  13. Elaine

    My mum died at 54 and I was 23 and 7 months pregnant with my first child x


  14. Dawn

    Thank you, I have often had the same thoughts. Pain is pain, but there was a lifetime of memories and experiences that I was cheated out of, and the problems between my brothers and I because they were 13 and 9, I was 21 so I had custody….what a mess our lives became. My mom was 45 and had a quick diagnosis and death (within a month) of lung cancer. She went into surgery and never was coherent again and died …no last words, no good byes, final instructions for life.


  15. Katy North

    I, too, lost my mother “young”, at 20, 6 weeks after my first wedding. She was not sick either, and had made all the gowns for my bridesmaids, and made my dress as well. She was 59, working full time, and helping me with my wedding. Immediately afterwards I flew to Great Falls, MT with my new Air Force husband. I didn’t get to share her last 6 weeks. How I wish I had. I have missed her every day since. I also buried my sister, and my father. I’m all there is of my family. Sometimes, I laugh at memories, sometimes I’m still overwhelmed. Just doing the besti can every day.


  16. Donna Gregory

    Your story sounds just like mine ! My mother died at 54 of a massive heart attack. I had just gotten married and had a baby and she died at Christmas time and I found her sleeping peacefully in bed . I was truly devastated. But God had a better plan for her so I can truly relate to this feeling. God Bless you .


  17. Colleen

    I used to think a ripe old age was worse, but that was only because it helped ease the pain that my mom shot herself at 32 and I was only 11. Now that she’s been dead longer than she lived, losing a mother when you’re young, when she’s young is the worst. She missed so much. I miss her so much….and for so long.


  18. Teresa Yaw

    I struggle with this same thing. My mom died at 56 of the dreaded “C” (cancer). She was in agony most of the 7 months before she died. She never got to meet her grandchildren or many other milestones we experience as we get older. I was grateful she was out of pain, but miss her still today after more than 20 years. I do struggle with and am jealous of my friends who still have their mothers. I just hope they cherish the time they have with a grateful heart. It is really sad not having your mommy around…


  19. I was at calling hours where a visitor said, “You were lucky to have your Dad for so long, l wasn’t as lucky.” It was shocking and insensitive. No matter when you lose a loved one, it is horrible. Be a good friend and say how sorry you are for her loss. Period.


  20. James Miller

    Nancy: I lost my Dad about 8 years ago. He had suffered a heart attack, and while in the hospital he was given some medication that left him totally unresponsive. He could do nothing but lay in a bed and had to be taken care of 24/7. I went to see him in the rest home once, and never went back because I could not stand to see him in this condition. He died about 6 months later on Christmas Day. I have had to live with the guilt of not going to see him, and being there for him. My mother was left with all of the problems that come with no income, massive amounts of bills, and a grand daughter with three children who had been living with them for many years. As I promised my Dad – I tried to take care of my Mom. We let her stay in a second home we had, and tried to be as much help as we could – without being a bother to her. So many things I wish I had said to my Dad but never did. Once in awhile, I take my Mom out for the day. Just her day. Should have done the same for my Dad.


  21. I’ll call you both extremely lucky. My Mother died from Cancer @ age 36. I was 14 and her primary caretaker. Double Colostomies and all that entails.
    She never knew any of her grandchildren. What can I say.


  22. My Mom and Dad died two months apart at 55 and 53 yrs respectively. I was 23 (the oldest) married with a one year old. My sisters and brother had no children yet. That baby of mine was their whole world till they passed. That was 1978. They now would have 13 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren they never got to know. How they would’ve adored those kids. They both died without warning. We didn’t get to say goodbye and grow up to be adults together. I’d give anything to have had them all these years. I’ve had no Mom most of my life. Appreciate your parents if they are still here. You’re so lucky.


  23. Lori Shepard

    I lost my Mom young too. She died early one morning with an aortic aneurysm. I face the same thoughts that you expressed here. I do feel robbed of my mother… I am not so sure getting all of those years back would not have been a better trade off for caring for her in later years. One day at a time is all I ever say about living life without her!


  24. Leonie Woods

    My children lost their dad 2 years ago. They were 12 and 15. At the time I found it very difficult finding the right words to comfort even my own children as my dad is still alive and well. It was hard for me to understand what it is to loose a parent especially when they were so young. My dad has been able to see both of his children marry and have children. I am hoping that he will see his grandchildren marry. However my fear is having to see him age and not be able to be independent. It is lovely to have our parents for as long as we can but i know the memories that stay with my children will be of a young happy active dad who laughed often and made them giggle with joy.


  25. Sarah

    I struggle with the such similar emotions. Only my mom died when I was 7, and she was only 27 years old. My step-mother’s mom died, recently, in her 80’s and she is constantly posting photos and anniversaries on her page. It drives me insane because neither one of them ever gave a hoot about me being orphaned at such a young age. I was always told to be grateful for what I had. Sometimes Teresa would say awful things about her out of jealousy because she was so beautiful. Truly awful things.
    Anyway, I just don’t know how to approach the sorrow my step-mother feels. I want to be the bigger person but it’s very difficult.


  26. I appreciate your honesty…my mom died at 54…I was 14…she never got to see me graduate…never got to meet my 3 girls or her 7 grandchildren…sad…yes…but one thing I have learned: Grief is grief…you cannot compare…each one is a tremendously painful loss…but Yes I have felt jealous of friends who still have their moms…to talk on the phone, go out to lunch or shopping, or just to give her a hug or a present…but now in my late 60’s I realize I have been spared of some difficult decisions that must be made.


  27. Shelly

    I lost both of my parents when I was in my 20’s. My mom at 49 and my dad at 59, less than 5 years apart. I was pregnant when my mom died and my kids will never know what it is like to have grandparents as their dad lost his mom at age 6 and his dad isn’t around much. I have thought so many times how envious I am of people who get to keep their parents longer. Nice to know I’m not the only one.


  28. My dad passed away in May ’93 at the age of 48, I turned 23 years old almost 2 months later; gosh that was about 23 years ago now. At that time I was helping raise my nephew who was just 4 years old in January that year. There are times we talk about my dad and he doesn’t remember him, he only remembers the pictures he’s seen and the stories that have been told. Yet he was with my dad pretty much every day; I mean come on dad cut the boy a small set of golf clubs down to his height. At least they had a great time together while we had the chance. 😉


  29. Linda Cox

    Both be thankful that you had a loving mother, no matter for what length of time. Some of grew up feeling motherless all of our lives due to a cold, unloving mother.


  30. I lost my mom at a young age she was 43 and I was 19 it was hard and it changed who I was completely my husband tried every way he could to help me but it was a hard time and even after five years I still cry myself to sleep I’d love to have been running ragged takin care of her cooking for her cleaning when their gone life changes and nothin seems like it’s gonna be alright ever again I miss her more than words will ever explain.


  31. Thank you for putting into words, the way I felt when I lost my Mother… I will always want more time, with her..
    The truth regardless when or how… the pain will be no different.
    Cherish her now, while she’s ALIVE! and yes I will cherish every moment I did have…
    I love you Mom


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