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Life, Death And Remembering Those Bright College Years

Recently I attended my wife's 25th college reunion. Many aspects of the weekend were what you'd expect: reconnecting with her roommates and friends, catching up on their lives and careers, and (mild) revelry late into the night.

As a spouse tagging along, I was braced for a nightmare of never-ending tales of yesteryear in which I'd played no part (my wife and I met after college) and reprisals of long-ago inside jokes.

But that's not what happened. Instead, I was inspired by the people I met and deeply touched by the stories they shared. Moreover, I was reminded that suffering and death are inevitable parts of life, and how we cope with and accept them seems to be among the greatest challenges of adulthood.

The weekend's festivities had broad-based appeal that any 47-year-old would find compelling. Among the highlights was a "Moth-like" story hour, in which a dozen different classmates volunteered to tell true personal stories in five minutes or less without any notes. Their storytelling prompt was "What's happened since I left college."

The next day, a few members of the class talked on a panel to a packed audience on the theme of resilience. Each panelist recounted tragic personal tales of illness, death and lost dreams; and how courage, faith and college friends helped each of them regain some footing to move forward.

I wasn't emotionally prepared for how much the weekend's final event affected me: The class memorial service.

Led by professional clergy and a literary maven who also happen to be members of the class, the service was an opportunity to remember the names of the 19 Harvard College class of 1991 members who had died.

The service was beautiful, evocative, and created a mood in which class members could remember the full spirit and presence of their classmates now gone.

I didn't know any of the deceased individuals, so I wasn't expecting to feel so moved in honoring their memory. I think what affected me were the raw and authentic feelings of loss, even at a remove of decades in some of the cases. Of course, the dead were people exactly our own age who were struck down far too early.

Upon further reflection, the doctor in me started wondering: Are 19 deaths a lot or a few? In a class of roughly 1,600, that's a little over 1 percent. Dying before age 47 in the U.S. is unusual, extremely so judging by actuarial tables.

Imagine a hundred years ago, when the average American only lived to the age of 52, and we had yet to vanquish the infectious diseases that took the lives of so many children. A 25th college reunion would have served as a life valedictory.

Now that Americans live, on average, to age 79 (men 77 and women 81), the reunion we attended at age 47 is just beyond life's halfway point.

Overlapping with my wife's reunion, her father was celebrating his 55th class reunion. In his (all male) class, there were nearly 250 read and remembered before the traditional tolling of the bell.

Statistically, I would have expected a significantly higher mortality rate among a class of 77-year-old males. But these Harvard graduates of the class of 1961 are outliers — not only on average having enjoyed better access to health care over the course of their lives, but also having benefited from premier educational and economic opportunities in life.

It's such social determinants of health that affect both the quality of our lives and our life spans — much more so than even the direct medical care we are afforded.

[And it certainly doesn't hurt that these men have entered their twilight years during an explosion of knowledge in molecular biology and genetics.]

At our memorial service, there were prayer offerings, songs and readings from several religious traditions. One class member even composed an extraordinary piece of music in remembrance of a deceased classmate that was performed at a Boston Pops concert the night before.

As the service progressed, I was barely able to breathe during the chanting of El Male Rachamim, a haunting Hebrew prayer for the souls of the departed:

God filled with mercy,

dwelling in the heavens' heights,

Grant perfect peace

beneath the wings of Your Presence,

amid the holy and the pure,

Illuminating like the brilliance of the skies

the souls of our beloved and holy

who went to their eternal place of rest.

Tears flowed, and after the service attendees hugged one another and shared remembrances of their departed classmates.

At reunion's end, I was heartened by the beauty and restorative power of the memorial service. It makes sense. Even at 47, many of us haven't had much experience with death. Learning to handle it gracefully becomes ever more important as we begin the downslope of our lives. Though those of us that remain constantly struggle with it, death is part of all of our lives.

John Henning Schumann is a writer and doctor in Tulsa, Okla. He serves as president of the University of Oklahoma, Tulsa. He also hosts Public Radio Tulsa's Medical Matters. He's on Twitter: @GlassHospital

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