5 Life Lessons from Death
Death is the end of life. That is what most believe when they think about dying, it is the cessation of our being and is unavoidable to every single one of us. Death is concentrated on the soul who has left life as we know it, but what of those who have encountered it from a degree of separation? The daughters, sons, wives, husbands, best friends, colleagues and so on; one must accept the permanency of never experiencing an interaction with the departed ever again. The un-acceptance of death is futile. We’ve all seen what happens to those who don’t or worse, won’t accept death: depression and/or addiction and all the destructive behaviour that follows.
I accepted death when I was seven years old. My dad passed away suddenly in 2001 and life for me was profoundly changed forever. There was talk of my family moving to the U.S when my dad retired from the police as he loved the Florida sunshine. It has always fascinated me when, on the odd occasion, I imagine what life might have been like if he lived well into his seventies or eighties. I am told how tragic it is to loose a parent at such an early age and how my time with him was cut short. I have to rely on stories being told or photos to jog the few memories I have in order to remember him. Truth be told, nineteen years later, I believe it has played an imperative part in how I interact with the world, with life. Living through death so closely at a young age endowed me five valuable lessons that until very recently, worked under cover for my benefit. Only now can I accurately name them: perspective, empathy, gratitude, finiteness and wholeheartedness. I’d like to briefly outline these qualities with you, you might find something in them now or later.
My mum always says ‘in the grand scheme of things’ and there’s not a phrase that keeps me more grounded. Perspective is a trait that is becoming more and more lost in the modern day, more too often do we fail to look at the bigger picture, at what truly matters. It is about relative importance. I cannot stress how vital it is to step back and take a moment to find perspective. A fleeting, negative encounter during the morning is, in the grand scheme of things, no license to ruin your day. When I worked at a national coffee chain, my former area manager would say to my store manager when she was stressed ‘it’s just coffee and cake’. Death will give you the key to allow more perspective into life but it is you who must open the door.
The difference between empathy and sympathy is connection. If you can understand and share the emotion of another then that is empathy, whereas sympathy is a feeling of pity towards someone’s misfortune. I knew my dad had passed away and I wouldn’t see him again, I was sad about it but what was equally as sad was how upset my mother, sister and brother were. Their grief, so natural and visible were daily reminders of my dad’s departure from our lives and all I wanted was for them to be happy again. Listening and being present while someone is in struggle is so powerful.
I must admit I struggle to practice gratitude, it’s the classic case of we don’t know what we have until it’s gone. Being grateful is the key to being at peace. How amazing is it that we live in a world where we can travel so freely? Or that we have a mattress to sleep on or that we have access to clean water? Growing up, my friends would talk of their parents and how frustrated they were that they wouldn’t let them stay out later or how they didn’t buy them something; all the while I was thankful that even though I have only one parent, I am grateful to have her. What death appears to take with one hand can give with the other.
The death of a parent at a young age taught me that nothing is forever. Sadness leaves yet so does happiness. Life only happens now. If someone close to you has died you may know what I mean when I say that ironically, death awakens life into the living. If we know our days on Earth are numbered, many of us are spurred to complete a list of things we’ve always wanted to do. Our mortality and therefore our finiteness is brought front and centre, but the thing is we do know our days are numbered.
When I discovered Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, it felt like a veil had been lifted and I could see the world with utter clarity. In the smallest nutshell, her research for example calls the people who love without guarantee ‘wholehearted’, the idea that we have the courage to audition for the role even though we know we may not get it but doing it anyway, is the way to live. When death comes it reveals the courageousness in us, our courage to get out of bed day after day and live without our dad, mum, sister, brother etc. The courage it takes to face the world after death is incredible and is, in my opinion, the strongest testament of ones character.
When I think about my dad dying I don’t think about what I’ve lost, I think about what I had. His passing also gave me the ability to see the beauty of the world and how magical it is to be alive, we never know when it’ll be our time to die but when we do, we owe it to ourselves to have let life lived through us as much as possible. I love you dad.