“Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don’t have to live forever; you just have to live.” ~Natalie Babbitt
My friend died recently.
I saw him just a few hours before he died too. He stopped by my office as he had done numerous times before to say hello. I’d seen him go through various challenges and come out better. His life was great, and the future looked bright. And I was happy for him because he had worked so hard to get to this place.
My friend died that night in a freak accident.
I was stunned. Why him? Why now when he had so much to live for?
As I was dealing with the sadness and shock of this sudden loss, I remembered the gift of life and the precious few moments we had with each other.
I hope these reminders will help you treasure each moment with yourself and with others:
1. Slow down.
Most of us live our lives like someone who always drives on the freeway. We get to our destinations faster, but when we avoid the slower country roads, we miss out on the beauty of the land and the people.
We get so caught up in our busy schedules and our to-do lists that we lose out on the ordinary moments that we often disregard as meaningless or unproductive.
When my friend died, the realization that I would never experience his impromptu visits again hit me hard. I just assumed I would see him the next day, as I had done countless times before.
I now understood how precious the moments we did have were. I understood that beauty is in each moment of my own life—that I don’t have to wait for the peak moments to feel alive, happy, or loved. I can slow down and enjoy all the blessings of being alive right now.
2. Learn to talk about death.
Our society doesn’t face the reality of death too well. We live like we will never die. We fail to plan and prepare. We put off the important things until it’s too late.
Why? It’s scary to talk about, and it’s emotionally taxing to think about.
I remember being intensely afraid of death as a child. I’d been to a few funerals, and the sight of dead bodies was something that haunted me. Sometimes I still struggle with thinking and talking about death until it hits close to home.
The sudden death of my friend reminded me of why talking about death with your loved ones is so important. If I died today, will my family be taken care of? Will my spouse know my funeral and burial wishes?
Talking about death allows us to make plans for the inevitable event so that those closest to us can know what to do when we die. They will be going through enough heartache, so helping them to feel prepared will ease their burden.
3. Embrace uncertainty.
Like death itself, we are often petrified to embrace uncertainty. That’s understandable. One of our basic human needs is to feel a sense of control in our lives. Taken too far, the desire for absolute certainty can be harmful.
As a recovering perfectionist, I know about overreacting if plans don’t go exactly as expected. I would become irritable or lose focus. My sense of well-being was often diminished by relatively minor detours from my plans.
But I’ve learned over the years that the most amazing thing about uncertainty is how we can be blindsided by joy. If we avoid uncertainty, we deprive ourselves of all of the wonderful possibilities that can come from the unexpected.
And while the unexpected is also bound to bring pain, it’s from that pain that we find nuggets of wisdom to help us grow emotionally and spiritually.
Though death itself is the one ultimate certainty, when and how it comes is unknown. Just like my beloved friend, I will die—on a day, time, and manner not of my choosing.
Embracing this ultimate uncertainty frees me emotionally to live in the present where I am more likely to be happier and fulfilled.
How do you embrace uncertainty? Start by looking for joy in the most unexpected places. Look for it when you’re afraid, upset, discouraged, or sad. And recall the times when you were surprised by joy. The more you do this, the less you’ll fear the uncertain because you’ll know that joy is always within reach.
4. Live with purpose and meaning.
Why do you do what you do? Is it to please others or because you find meaning in it?
Because we push death to the fringes as a society, we are often out of touch with our own mortality. With each passing second, we grow ever closer to the day we will die. We put off our own dreams and desires to some unknown future date that may never come.
Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, recorded the top five regrets of the dying. At the top of the list was this regret:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
The death of my friend prompted me to think: What would be my number one regret if I were dying today? Would I have the above regret? Would you?
If you’re struggling to create meaning in your life, start by thinking about the kind of person you want to be. Finding meaning is more about being than doing. The latter helps, but your being follows you, regardless of what you are doing.
5. Be generous with your love.
During their funerals, we always talk about how much these people affected us during life. Why can’t we tell them when they are alive?
I often think back to the last day I saw my friend. What would I have done or said differently had I known I would never see him again? A part of me felt unresolved. I wished I had a chance to simply offer a few words of appreciation.
When we lose someone, we’ll frequently have unresolved feelings—regrets about the unsaid, the harsh words we wish we could take back, or the things we wished we could have done to ease their pain.
But don’t let this stop you from telling the important people in your life how much you love them. Small acts of kindness and selfless giving are also essential ways of expressing love.
Visible and concrete expressions of love will be a soothing balm when faced with loss.
Wake Up To Your Life
Let’s be honest. The vast majority of us are driving on the freeway of life. We’ve fallen asleep behind the wheel, lulled by the seemingly endless highway that stretches in a straight line to the horizon.
No matter how long the highway may seem from where we are, it will eventually come to an end. Don’t wait until the end to wake up to your life.
Roll down the windows, get off the highway, and take the unbeaten path.
Be present to the gift of your life in this very moment.
Be courageous by being true to yourself.
And be grateful for the ways death teaches us to live.
Man in a cave image via Shutterstock