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What Forrest Gump Teaches Us About Death and Dying

As we watch Forrest cope with death in his uncomplicated and imperturbable manner there are certain lessons that shine forth for each of us about death and dying:
11/10/2015 09:32am ET | Updated November 10, 2016
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The classic movie Forrest Gump (1994), directed by Robert Zemeckis, has been described by some as a profound social commentary and a historical depiction of southern culture, and by others as a model of man's resiliency. But on closer look, Forrest Gump, the tale of a simple man negotiating a complex world, can actually be interpreted as a film about death and dying with some important lessons for us to learn on this subject.

Throughout the film Forrest tells stories of historical events that involve the deaths of various iconic figures such as Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and John Lennon. He matter-of-factly talks about each man's death and sums up his own lack of explanation for these tragedies with "for no particular reason" or "I don't know why," reminding us that death is a mystery that very often cannot be understood from a rational perspective.

But Forrest also faces death on a personal level as he must endure the loss of three of the most important people in his life: his Momma, his "best good friend" Bubba, and his beloved Jenny, who won his heart the moment he first laid eyes on her. As we watch Forrest cope with death in his uncomplicated and imperturbable manner there are certain lessons that shine forth for each of us about death and dying:

1. "You never know what you're gonna get."

This is the corollary to Forrest's most famous adage: "Life [and also Death] is like a box of chocolates." One of our greatest struggles is the fact that life and death are uncertain. We have no way of knowing when or how we will die and must live with our questions and take our chances as we move through this world.

Even if we demand control over death by choosing to take it into our own hands, there are still no guarantees: the method we choose to hasten death might fail, we might change our minds at the last minute, or we might even die by some other cause before the date of our planned death.

So we have to reach into the box of life, not knowing what we will get, and make the best of whatever we draw out. Forrest is okay with this reality of life and models for us, in his Zen-like fashion, that sometimes not-knowing and simply accepting things as they are can be the highest form of wisdom.

2. "If I'd known this would be the last time we'd talk I'd have thought of something better to say."

These are Forrest's words as he reflects on his last moments with his "best good friend" Bubba who dies during a firefight in Vietnam. Forrest reminds us that our words may be the last gift we will ever give to our loved ones and we should choose them carefully. Any moment with someone we care about could be our final opportunity to express our love and admiration, so let's not waste a single one. The last words our loved ones hear us utter need not be profound or deeply wise, but wouldn't it be sweet if those words spoke of love and compassion?

3. "It's my time -- just my time."

With these few words, Momma explains to Forrest in simple terms that death has its own time frame, as the verse from Ecclesiastes 3:2 states, there is "a time to be born and a time to die." Momma accepts her dying with calmness and fearlessness that reassure Forrest and help him see that even a painful loss can be perfect in a way.

Lieutenant Dan believed that "his time" was to die during the war as a hero, but when Forrest saved his life he had to recognize eventually that his path had something else in store for him. We really cannot say what the timing of death will be or should be -- we can only observe it and marvel that death always arrives with its own sense of mystery.

4. "Death is just a part of life."

Forrest recalls these words from his Momma as he copes with losing his dear Jenny. At this point in the story it becomes clear that this simple truth has been an important message of the entire film: Death cannot be separated from life.

In fact, death is a necessary part of the cycle of life and should be accepted as a natural, though painful, process. Forrest is able to grasp this concept and use it as his lens for looking at all of the events of his own existence, which is evidence that life and death are not necessarily difficult to understand. But we tend to complicate them by overthinking and overreacting emotionally to the circumstances that occur. Forrest teaches us to take a step back and look at life and death without expectations or attachments.

5. "I couldn't tell where Heaven stopped and Earth began."

When Jenny asks Forrest if he was ever afraid in Vietnam, he ends up describing to her all of the beautiful moments he remembers from that experience and also from running back and forth across the country multiple times.

He recalls several times when nature's beauty was especially astounding such as when the stars came out on a clear night, a gorgeous scene was reflected perfectly upon a still lake, and the sun rose and set with all its vivid colors. These are the moments when we recognize that Heaven is not a place to transition to -- Heaven is always right here, right now, within our own perception of life and death.

6. "I don't know if we each have a destiny or we're all just floatin' around accidental like on a breeze. Maybe both happening at the same time ..."

With this final musing, Forrest sums up the key message of this movie: life can be like a feather floating on a breeze, randomly swayed and directed by gusts of wind that shift direction without warning. But life also, like each feather, has a purpose and a reason to exist. And both are happening at the same time.

When we can grasp both of those concepts, as Forrest has, we will have mastered the key to enlightenment and also the answer to the fear of dying. We don't have to worry about death--we will float there on a breeze, but in that process we will also fulfill our greatest purpose at exactly the right time.

Learn more about death and dying at Death Expo, an online interview series, November 19-22.

About the Author: Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician and the author of the award-winning book "What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying." She is a frequent keynote speaker and radio show guest whose profound teachings have helped many find their way through the difficult times of life. Learn more about her work at www.karenwyattmd.com.