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The young perish and the old linger, withering.
The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

Is there a common English phrase for when an old person, unfortunately, watches a young person die before them, even though the old one wishes it were the other way around?

For example, imagine a grandma watches her beloved grandchild die because of an incurable disease.

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    Where did you get the idea that there is a real phrase and that Tolkien’s is some cheap imitation?
    – Jim
    Commented May 31, 2021 at 6:37
  • @Jim It's a quote from a fiction book. Maybe that's why it's not "real". And did I say anything about "cheap imitation"? Commented May 31, 2021 at 6:46
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    I guess I thought it was implied when you referred to his quote and then implied that there was a real one. Also i’ve never encountered that sentiment before. What I have encountered are things like “No patent should have to outlive their children” which says quite the opposite. In fact it seems like the proportion of people older than you that you have to see die is always going to be larger than the number of people younger than you.
    – Jim
    Commented May 31, 2021 at 7:26
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    "Only the good die young" is in the same ballpark, but I'm not sure exactly what you're trying to say or what situation you're referring to. It's obviously not true that everybody dies young, so who specifically dies young or lives to be old?
    – Stuart F
    Commented May 31, 2021 at 9:03
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    "To be or not to be" is also invoked when a person is making a difficult decision, it's not only used when citing Shakespeare's Hamlet. But you're right to imagine that Tolkein's expression is uncommon in spoken English.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented May 31, 2021 at 12:21

2 Answers 2

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The young perish and the old linger, withering.

Some consider this to be a personal commentary on World War II

As you may recall, both of Tolkien's sons were combatants in the war. It seems that as a worried parent he was possibly making a personal comment about the unjust toll taken upon the youth of the world during war...so I will answer in the same vein with a qualification...


...Unless you are looking for a more common phrase as used in cases of fatalities from accident or child-hood disease...

"No parent should have to bury their child."

...which ironically also comes from Tolkien (King Theoden) and is more well-known.


...I am offering a few suggestions:

“War is young men dying and old men talking” -FDR

“I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.” -George McGovern

"Old soldiers never die, they just fade away" -General Douglas MacArthur


But for me, the most significant comment comes from a long forgotten poem...

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath, ...
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You'd see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. "Poor young chap,"
I'd say—"I used to know his father well;
Yes, we've lost heavily in this last scrap."
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I'd toddle safely home and die—in bed.

Base Details by Siegfried Sasoon (1917)


All of that said, the original from Tolkien is almost poetry; and like most poetry it is wide-open for interpretation.

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Is there a common English phrase for when an old person, unfortunately, watches a young person die before them, even though the old one wishes it were the other way around?

Reading all of the above, it appears that the answer is "No, there isn't."

There is nothing more than phrases, some common, some good, some bad that express the emotion of such an event.

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  • Dude, don't just base your answer on other people's comments just to get points. The bounty specifically looks for an answer with a reputable source. If you don't have one, but you're convinced that there's no such phrase, just leave a comment. Commented Jun 6, 2021 at 1:01
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    @Vun-HughVaw Dude, sometimes, the answer is that there is no answer. A point worth remembering is that students of English often look for a word or phrase that exists in their own language/culture or that they think should exist in English.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jun 6, 2021 at 8:27
  • I'm aware that there may not be an answer, so after my question was changed to "more common equivalent", I decided to go ahead with the bounty, may be I'll get a catchier phrase from literature even if it's not "real", or maybe all I'll get is Tolkien. Commented Jun 6, 2021 at 11:30
  • I'm emphasizing the "Reading all of the above", which is the sole basis of your entire answer, which is not the point of the bounty. You haven't shown you did any research at all. I'm not asking you to look for something that doesn't exist, but at least something like "I was an English major and I've never encountered a phrase like Tolkien's in any of the books I've read" would be more helpful. Commented Jun 6, 2021 at 11:30
  • I am curious to know "reading all of the above", which encompasses and includes the experiences of all those who wrote, might be less than "I've never encountered a phrase like Tolkien's in any of the books I've read"; especially when you realise that I must be including my experience too.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jun 7, 2021 at 9:18

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