Failure to thrive

I think about these words often, failure to thrive.

They’re an official cause of death. As on my mother-in-law’s certificate.

But I wonder: How can living to ninety-one be considered ‘failure to thrive’?

A coal-miner’s daughter who survived the Great Depression, widowed twice with young children each time, who maintained a beautiful home and a bountiful table frequently laden and ready for the arrival of her family. A voracious reader with a passion and ear for music, a grandmother generous with her love, time, and grace, a woman of great faith in God … her decline was slow and in the last days, she called out to deceased siblings and sang the hymns of her childhood.

—It doesn’t seem like failure to thrive to me. If anybody ever thrived, she did.

Oh, I understand it’s medical terminology for geriatric deterioration, encompassing decreased appetite leading to poor nutrition, muscle weakness, dementia; the human body can only take us so far.

But failure to thrive doesn’t happen only to the elderly. Most often it’s applied to babies who don’t gain weight, who don’t grow as they should, due to a host of contributing factors.

Both ends of the spectrum, then, isn’t it, failure to thrive. Its potential can frame the beginning of one’s life, and, even if that life should be long, the end.

Which for me begs the question of all that’s in between.

In how many ways do we fail to thrive? In the course of being alive, what are the “nutrients” each individual needs to live well? Thriving in this sense goes beyond the physical to the psychological, mental, emotional, spiritual… can there be holistic balance if one part is suffering, starving? Because I’m an educator, this line of thinking brings me to “the whole child”: What is impeding growth? What “learning diet” does this individual child need? In the academic realm, nourishment for flourishment can vary widely… but at the core of being human, one non-negotiable need is each other.

Relationships fail to thrive, do they not. Suffering ensues. A point of pain ripples outward, troubling the waters, sometimes over a great expanse… being alive, successfully, involves an array of coping mechanisms, the ability to adapt. The Venus flytrap comes to mind. Stuck in nutrient-poor soil, it compensates by eating meat, the unwary flies which land in its toothy leaf-blades. The businesslike science of staying alive. Gulp.

In terms of the human, the matter of thriving—growing, growing up, growing old—involves willing interdependence. Based on… love? Conscience? Overcoming fear? When my oldest son was in his early teens, he sighed: “I do not want to grow up.” (Of course he did; he’s now a husband, a father, and his daughter is the joy of his days).

But I understood his words and shivered.

Point being that of the baby, the child, the adult, the aged and infirm, which stands most able to impact the thriving of the human ecosystem… for better, for worse… with the power to discern, decide, desire, and do for one and all?


That’s us.

I think about these words often, failure to thrive.

They’re an official cause of death…

Photo: Wilted. Fotologic. CC BY


With thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the weekly Slice of Life invitation to write and to this writing community for unfailing encouragement.

20 thoughts on “Failure to thrive

    • The ‘nourish to flourish’ phrasing came to mind during the writing – I almost struck it for being “too much” but the poetic truth of it kept me from doing it … and so I’m very glad to know it resonates and that you’ll carry it forward. Yes – these are challenging times for thriving, on so many levels – what do teachers need? What do Americans need? When and where and how – and why – are we failing to thrive? Pandemics, disasters, inner strife… I found myself clinging to thread of needing each other. Thank you for your words, Melanie. And yes – the term remains a tough one to hear – and to ameliorate.


  1. Failure to thrive……powerful and thought-provoking. A wonderful post, beautifully composed, Fran. I do believe it is all in choice most of the time. I studied William Glasser, especially his Choice Theory that I originally learned about in his book The Quality School and also Albert Ellis who talked about choosing. So while there is always angst and worry and worse there is also choice. And each day morphs into the next but if we are not thinking ahead (ie health goals always but more so as we age ie strength training and cardio strength) how much do we contribute in the end to our own failure to thrive. And yet there are incredible moments in between when we can strive and shine like your beloved grandmother. How lucky we are in the good times and those blessings need to be recognized. Even in the simplest moments of walking in the woods or shining up the house. You really touched me today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so glad you mentioned choice, Janet – ultimately we can only control our own responses, and even deciding not to choose is a choice… especially in your excellent example of being proactive for our late-in-life stage. Lots of food for thought in your insightful reply – for which I am so grateful. And, those simple moments – oh yes, therein often lie the greatest of life’s joys. If we stop to realize…


  2. Such a somber set of words on a death certificate – “failure to thrive”…I, too, thought of this as something that happened only to babies in the worst circumstances. I hadn’t thought of it as a cause of death for elderly. And, yet, societally, how do we write off those that are deemed too ‘old’ ? How do we avoid them, put them out of our minds, leave them to wither and die all alone? Failure to thrive is not just an issue for the one who has died, but for all of us…how are we letting others fail to thrive? Thank you for this thought-provoking post. Thank you, too, for this BIG QUESTION: “In how many ways do we fail to thrive?”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So much to think about here.

    And how might I define “thriving” right now in my life? Is it another one of those phrases like “do your best” which finds relative meaning given our circumstances?

    But at the heart of things, I love your challenge to consider what it means to thrive across all areas and all stages of our lives. And how can we keep that within ourselves? And how can we foster that in others?

    And what is our obligation as fellow human people, as caretakers of one another?

    There’s something about your words that reminds me that all of us – within ourselves, between ourselves – need tending and love and care if we are to grow. Because it is when that growth stops that the dying begins.

    So much to think about.

    Thank you. ❤


  4. I’m thankful that your mother-in-law thrived for so long. Here’s to all of us thriving in these difficult times. Ruth,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Ruth – I wrote a tribute to my mother-in-law shortly after her passing. She was an amazing person who overcame so much in life — and, yes, we can still thrive in this difficult times!


  5. I have never heard that term applied to adults as a cause of death; it does seem to negate all that came before, especially in your mother-in-law’s case. Some health issues cannot be avoided or controlled, of course, but look at the mounting evidence that shows how our actions in the early years impact our lives later on. What would medicine look like if it started giving as much weight to the business of thriving as it did to disease treatment? My children’s pediatrician had that mindset, asking just as many questions about milestones and mental health as he did about fevers and allergies. What if our general practitioners did the same for us? You’ve given me something to ponder today, as always, Fran!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love this proactive thread for avoiding ‘failure to thrive’ – beginning at the beginning of life by considering all aspects of health as did your children’s pediatrician. I am also fascinated by the different interpretive threads that people are teasing out in regard to failure to thrive. It hits us all in different ways, according to where we are within ourselves at present. So grateful for your insights, Chris – always masterfully expressed.

      Liked by 2 people

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