What Death Taught Me About Life: 5 Inspirational Lessons

Through my personal experiences of love and loss, and through 20 years of counseling countless clients through theirs, I have learned the following truths.
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It was 3 a.m. when I opened my eyes and felt like my body had been hit by a Mack truck. I was in the guest bedroom of my parents' home in Ohio. As I became conscious, I recalled the previous day's unseemly events -- selecting a casket, shopping for a black suit for my mother, and a surreal slew of other revolting tasks my sister and I completed with robotic formality as silent screams reverberated through my 28-year-old mind. Then I remembered -- my father had died following a routine surgery.

My body ached with sadness from head to toe as I got up to go to my father's moonlit den. I picked up a paper and pen with my hands, leadened with grief, and began to write his eulogy. Tears streamed down my face as the words flowed out of my heart and through the pen until the paper was filled. I wrote the eulogy from beginning to end without changing a word. In retrospect, I believe this is because in my grief-stricken state, I was stripped down to my most vulnerable and authentic self. The message I wanted to deliver was easily accessed from my soul and downloaded to the paper.

At the funeral, I heard the click clack of my heels on the stone floor as I walked alone to the altar and up to the podium, relieved I was standing when I feared I would crumble. As I recited the eulogy, I heard a somber strength in the timbre of my voice as I looked into the mass of saddened faces. When I finished, I returned to my seat, where my husband hugged me and my mother and three siblings thanked me through matching sets of blue-gray eyes, all overflowing with tears.

"Beautiful, Joyce," I recall the priest saying after taking a long pause. He noted that while my father had achieved a Harvard MBA and an impressive career as a corporate executive, I had mentioned none of that. The things I had mentioned included things about who he was as a man and as a father -- things that mattered to me. For example:

*My father was masterful at packing the trunk of our car for our annual family vacation to Cape Cod. He meticulously arranged the luggage for all six of us, ensuring there still was room for the board games and the volleyball for us to play with together.

*My dad told me I could be whatever I wanted to be. He asked me often if I was happy, because that was important to him.

*He almost always said yes to playing cards with his children or grandchildren (we had to put up with his corny jokes and bad puns, but he would play...)

Those who knew him best thanked me for capturing his essence. Others thanked me for reminding them of what is important and inspiring them to be better. For me, the eulogy experience was a critical beginning to my grief process -- one that continues to ebb and flow, in different ways, many moons later.

Since then, I have lost others whom I have loved deeply.

Most paramountly, my mother passed away when I was 36. She had a brain tumor and died seven weeks after diagnosis. My children were small, and I watched her deteriorate from living a full life as an involved grandmother to unable to walk or speak, to death, all in under two months. I experienced complicated grief for months, if not more than a year, after hear death.

A year ago, I lost my dear friend, Carrie, to breast cancer. It was powerfully heartbreaking and high honor to be part of a circle of women whom she entrusted to process her feelings about her impending death and to establish a plan to support her husband and kids following her passing. (I was asked to give her daughter advice about love and relationships.)

Most regrettably, I've also supported friends who have endured unimaginable losses: one who buried an infant and one who buried an adult child. There are no words.

Through my personal experiences of love and loss, and through 20 years of counseling countless clients through theirs, I have learned the following truths:

1) Life is truly a gift. We're probably all guilty at times of viewing time as an obstacle we need to hunker down and get through (e.g., "Isn't it the end of the workday yet?" "I just need to get through this year...") Death reminds us that life is precious, temporary and not to be taken for granted or begrudged. A daily practice of gratitude such as a meditation, affirmation or journal entry is a great way to stay positive and aligned with the awareness of the awesome gift of life.

2) You are not your resume. While our academic and career accomplishments bring knowledge and experiences, it is our choices that define our character and bring wisdom. When somebody one day gives your eulogy, it is doubtful your GPA or workplace title will be cited. What will be remembered is how you made people feel, so be mindful of being present in your relationships and be your best self.

3) The present moment is where life occurs. We all ruminate about the past and worry about the future. Death reminds us that all we have for certain is right now and re-calibrates our values. Don't waste your life second guessing your past or waiting to live your life. Live life passionately and fearlessly. Live today and every day to its fullest, brilliant magnificence. Laugh with abandon. (Even in the last weeks of my mother's life, my sisters and I experienced moments with her where we were overcome by fits of hysterical laughter together. I'm grateful we seized those precious opportunities for connection and hold those memories close to my heart.)

4) Loss can bring unexpected and enormous blessings. Hardships are opportunities for growth. Unimaginable losses are openings for the soul to receive healing love from new sources. In my practice and in my own journey, I have been awed and inspired by the resiliency of the human spirit. You never know how strong you are until you endure the unendurable. While it may be impossible to understand our losses, I believe all people come in our lives for a reason, setting our lives on the correct trajectory for our psycho-spiritual development. Notice the blessings you have received from your losses and be grateful for the ways those experiences have carved wisdom and depth into your being.

5) Love is the currency of life. In our culture, we place far too much value on achievement, money, possessions and beauty. Love is what matters and what is remembered. It is LOVE that connects us to one another and to the world around us, in life and beyond.

"FORGIVE quickly,

KISS slowly,

LOVE truly,

LAUGH uncontrollably."

-- James Dean