What I Learned about Life Through Death
What I Learned about Life Through Death
Death is such a taboo subject. If we hear the word "death" mentioned in a conversation, we immediately feel uncomfortable. But why? Let's face it, either you or someone you know has experienced a loved one dying. And as Katie Couric puts it, "We are all terminal." As morbid as that sounds, it's true. Whether we want to believe it or not, we are all headed towards the same finale, so why not embrace this one life we get? If you are to take anything away from my post today, I hope that you will walk away willing to live a little harder, love a little deeper, and be filled with gratitude. If you are alive and kicking, try really hard to appreciate that. If you are getting up each morning and putting the pot of coffee on, appreciate that.
One Moment can Change your Life Forever
October 24, 1999 was just like any other day for a 10 year old. Who knows what I was doing - probably making up gymnastic routines on our giant, outdoor trampoline or taking the family pup, Scruffy, to the dam to watch her submerge under water for what felt like hours, to successfully pop up with the exact same, tiny rock I threw into the water. Life was good. No, life was perfect. I just didn't realize it at the time.
In the evening, my mom took my brother and I to basketball practice while my sister stayed home with my dad. On the way home, my mom received a call that would change the course of my life forever. My father had suffered a massive heart attack.
Everything past the phone call is still a blur. I have fragments that will pop into my mind sometimes, like holding my mom and brother's hands, hysterically crying, as we rushed to the ER. Or that awful, hospital smell. You know the one - that clean, almost too sterile smelling smell? I remember the depressing-feeling room they put you in when you have a family member dying. But what is burned into my memory is seeing my dad, with no life left in him.
It is unimaginable. You cannot fully come back from seeing something or experiencing something like that. It is, without a doubt, the most painful, turn-my-world-upside-down, earth-shattering moment in my life. However, it is by far the most significant.
Here's the Thing...
My dad was the best. I'm not saying that to make this a better, more touching story. He was everything - kind, compassionate, adventurous, HILARIOUS, hard-working, an amazing husband, father, and friend, and so musically talented (take a listen to my pop's singing chops below - it's the song I played at my wedding).
My best memories are filled with camping trips and riding along in the tractor or pick-up while I "helped" count cattle. He made each one of us feel special and loved. We all felt like his favorite child, but we were equals to him. He embraced our differences. He was, and is, so loved by every life he touched.
He was the best. What good could possibly come from this? How does a 10 year old, 12 year old and 13 year old process the weight of this grief? The loss of a parent? How does a single mother hold the family together?
How do you go on Living?
It's complicated. You definitely don't go on living like you had previously. Some days will bring brief moments of happiness, only to be followed by overwhelming guilt. How could I let myself be happy? I thought it wasn't fair to my dad to go on living and be happy while he didn't get to. The brief moments of what seemed like dull happiness were followed by the constant reminder of the gaping hole in my heart. Life felt nearly unbearable.
But then it starts to happen - it gets better. The fleeting, happy moments start to show themselves more often. Whether it's a friend telling a joke or your mom being able to talk about the joyful moments we DID get to experience with our dad, the good starts to fill in the gaping hole. It may never fully heal, but it does get better.
It gets Better
Do I wish it upon anyone to go through a death, so they can have the opportunity to rise above and overcome adversity? So they can say things like, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" or "Make lemonade out of lemons?" Never. Plus, those adages are sort of BS...I'm sorry, but they are. Am I stronger from the experience? Maybe. Would life be better with my father in it? Absolutely. What I am trying to get at is that Death sucks, but the pain will subside, and it will get better. YOU will get better.
Here are a few things I can say I have learned and come away with from losing a parent:
- Children are incredibly resilient. They can lose the rock of their family and still go on. They can get up, go to school, continue playing in basketball games, perform well academically, and not cry in front of their friends. They bounce back, and they mature quickly. They are so malleable and their perspective on life can change quickly. They stop sweating the small stuff when they go through something like this. Kids are strong as hell and they can overcome adversity even in the most insanely difficult times.
- My mother held us together. I don't think I give her enough credit for what she had to go through. She is strong to a fault. She was so brave to get up and keep being our mom each day. She held it all together when everything should have crumbled around us. My mom had to learn how to do a 2-person job while remaining composed and strong, and I hope she knows how proud of her we are.
- Those who love you will be there for you. I don't mean just bringing you casseroles or flowers. I mean they will show up every day. They will listen to you and let you cry. They are really there for you you.
- You don't sweat the small stuff as much. Even as a child, small, petty things didn't bother me like it probably bothered other children. As sad as it is, my new norm became, "Oh, you didn't get the toy you wanted at your birthday? Well my dad died, so...things could be a lot worse." Not that I would ever say that out loud, but I thought that a lot. Maybe that sounds like I lacked compassion. I didn't. I had just gained a new perspective on life, and suddenly at the age of 10, the small, petty things didn't matter so much.
- Lastly, you learn to cherish the little joys in life. We think that getting the job of our dreams or buying the perfect house is what makes us happy. People, that couldn't be farther from the truth! It's the little things that you will remember. Like my dad's prickly whiskers poking me when he gave us goodnight kisses. Or riding in the pick up with my siblings to go pick up parts for the tractor, and grab a Barq's Root Beer for the trek back home. It's being there for the birth of your nephews and watching your brother become a dad. It's being surrounded by friends and family as you vow to love someone for the rest of your life. It's escaping into the wilderness and breathing in nature with no distractions. It's road tripping across the country to move in with your sister who you haven't lived with since high school!
THESE little things are what matter! I realize the tone of this blog post may not seem all that uplifting, but death is as much a part of me as life is. I have now spent over half of my life without the person I loved the most. It is not my intention to make you feel sorry for me or sad. My intention is to let you know that it's okay to talk about death and to respect that it exists. It shouldn't be so taboo.
I am who I am because of my experiences, good and bad. I likely moved towards a career in helping others, because I care so deeply about their stories and experiences and want them to create a life they deserve. It is not necessarily about the outcome. It is about experiencing every happy, painful, joyous, growth moment in between. The journey is what you will remember.
Today, I want you to walk away from this and live just a little bit harder. Travel more. Leave work early to pick up your spouse or partner to go on a date. Show up for your kids' softball game. Hug your loved ones more. Get outside and soak up the sun. Do more with this life, because death does not discriminate. I don't know about you, but I've got one life, and I'm living it.
If you have experienced death or know someone you loved who has gone through it, how did you/they grieve? What was your experience? How did you go on? I want to hear from you! Comment below, because your story is important to me!