The Gift

When my dad died, I was a mess. All my siblings and I were. Except one. My youngest brother, William.

I was 26 years old at the time, married, pregnant with my first child, climbing the corporate ladder. I thought I had it all figured out. Including "how to mourn." And to me, William, didn't respond to our father's death the way I thought he should. He didn't fit MY self-created model of mourning. My siblings and I were paralyzed with grief. But William wasn't. He lived. He celebrated. And I thought he was pure ridiculousness. I was incredibly disappointed in him. And angry with him.

And I was wrong.

Why is it that many of us fear death so much? Why do we seem to think we'll live forever? Especially when we're young. It's usually such a shock to hear of someone's death, isn't it? But remember what it was like when we were young and someone died?

A friend of mine told me about the week of her high school graduation... almost 25 years ago now. Two of her friends were killed in a brutal motorcycle accident outside of her small Iowa town. It shook her, her entire class -- her entire town -- to the core. No one could believe it. Some almost could not go on. Death at 17? 18? No, it just could not be. But it was. And it is.

Then we grow older.

We start seeing people around us die. Family. People we've worked with. Just a couple weeks ago, a man I worked with years ago died at age 53. Then, a woman in her 30s who had been in one of my leadership classes at Kroger suddenly passed away. Tragic. Completely unexpected. So much sadness. The family members left behind. The untapped brilliance of those we lose. It is almost too much at times.

But the truth, as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross stated so eloquently, is this, "Death belongs to life as birth does. The walk is in the raising of the foot as in the laying of it down."

I realized that truth years ago -- thanks to my little brother. Death, as painful and sorrowful as it is, is part of life. Therefore, we must use death as our fuel. We must challenge ourselves to look at our OWN lives. To pause. THAT is the gift that death gives us: PAUSE. As with any gift, however, you and I must reach out, accept it and open it. Every day. Every morning. Every moment.

We must use this gift of death to challenge ourselves. To find our voice. If you're in an organization and you don't feel valued or respected, then get out. Don't stay and waste another day. We are not assured of another day. Have the courage to disrupt life and move forward.

As Oprah said:

Ignoring death is like dying a slow death. Your life is speaking to you every day, all the time -- and your job is to listen up and find the clues. Passion whispers to you through your feelings, beckoning you toward your highest good. Pay attention to what makes you feel energized, connected, stimulated-what gives you your juice. Do what you love, give it back in the form of SERVICE, and you will do more than succeed. You will TRIUMPH!

My family and I have lived through family members being murdered. We've lived through tragedy. And one fundamental truth has made itself clear through all of that:

We need to live life like we mean it. There is no life "B." This is it.

One of my favorite Bible verses is "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). I recently had a meditation experience where I felt, for the first time in many, many years, the power of silence and breathing. Finding peace in everything is so incredibly powerful and liberating. It makes us appreciate every single moment of our lives.

That's my wish to anyone who reads this...

That you are liberated to live every moment as if it were your last. Then and only then will you be intentional and truly grateful. I fall off this track, and I imagine others do as well. But as soon as we start to drift back into what is referred to as "normal life" after a pause from death, then it is time to pull over, slow down and get back to what is truly important. Staying on purpose. Living life with intentionality. Seizing every moment to be at peace with wherever you are in life.

My little brother did this -- he lived life and seized the moment. And he processed death in a completely different way than I. He saw it as a gift. A gift he himself eventually gave me.

You see, I never thanked him for the depth of understanding he gave me regarding death. And I never apologized to him for my anger toward him all those years ago. Because in a tragic story all our own, in 2009 at the age of 45, William died.

So these words I write are not mere lip-service. Not idealistic principles that I've never had to put into practice myself. I have walked this out. I have reached out and opened the gift that the deaths of those closest to me have offered. To pause and to live out that pause every day. To "be and be better. For they existed."


"And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed."

-- Maya Angelou, Excerpt from When Great Trees Fall

This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.