“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” ~Steve Jobs
A week ago a woman I loved died. She was a member of my family and had been dying for a while from bone cancer, so her death did not come as a surprise.
I was traveling when I got the email, and I sat in Abu Dhabi airport surrounded by the banging and steps of people and grieved.
Yes, I knew her death was imminent, but at a deeper level I found the news confusing. When I last visited her in her hospital room, her eyes were open and her breath constant; we chatted, she laughed, and we talked about seeing each other again.
What was deeply confusing, and still is, is the fact that she will never exist again—not in the same form. Some believe she has gone to another world, some believe she now exists as particles, but the reality is that her shape, the twinkle in her eyes, the way she held my hand will never exist again.
All of us who have gone through loss will understand this deep confusion. How can something no longer exist? How can one not call or talk to or hug a person anymore within the space of a day?
My husband and I sat on the pews in the small suburban church and listened to beautiful things said about her.
People spoke of her struggles with self-doubt and loss, as well as her ability to inspire and support women to find their own path. She could be conflicted and generous at the same time—she was human.
A friend of mine once said that light on fractured glass is more arresting than glass that is robust and flat. I couldn’t have agreed more, as the words in the church about the woman we had lost recreated her and we could feel her living, just for that moment, in all her light and shade.
From everything I’ve read coping with grief, it’s all about letting it out, about not having expectations about when the grief will end, about communicating about it with family and friends who understand.
I let it out yesterday; I couldn’t help myself. The real rain came, though, when I looked over at the coffin and knew there was a woman inside, and her lack of life, of existence, overwhelmed me.
So, how do we process the confusion that occurs when people that are special to us are no longer in our lives? Death is just one way these people can disappear; they can also disappear through relationship breakups, geographical separation, or they can simply vanish.
The overwhelming feeling I get is one of too much space. It becomes very obvious that that person occupied some space within my existence and the vacuum is very hard to bear.
In practical terms, it may be that I saw that person once a week, once a month, once a year, and now my dance card is not as full because they are no longer on the floor. Even if they had a negative impact on my life, I miss them, some parts of them.
I guess the comforting thing I’ve learned from experience is that eventually others will come onto the floor, that the vacuum is not permanent, that each person who comes and goes brings more and more to my life and my understanding of existence.
As Salman Rushdie writes in Midnight’s Children, “I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’m gone which would not have happened if I had not come.”
When the people I care about no longer exist, I have the perfect opportunity to reflect on how I can integrate the best parts of them into my life.
The woman I loved and lost was passionate about empowering women. I have carried the same flame, and her death inspires me to work even harder to encapsulate women’s voices into my writing.
As a counselor, teacher, and friend, she also cared a lot about people and always wanted to help. When she spent the last year in and out of hospital, the love that she gave came back in spades with the constant stream of visitors and helpers by her bedside.
Watching this really taught me the value of giving, not only to help others but also to develop relationships that were more about creation than destruction.
We also have a choice to address the question of existence more broadly when people we were close to no longer exist in our lives.
The older I get, the more I understand that existence really is very temporary. It makes sense, then, that the temporary nature of existence means that existence is, in itself, quite extraordinary.
As science writer Lewis Thomas wrote, “Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that the mere fact of our existence should keep us all in a state of contented dazzlement.”
We can choose to ignore just how temporary our lives are, or, we can choose to say, “Well, I’m only here for a bit so I’d better get on with it and work out how I want to live and give.”
Steve Jobs said, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”
Steve’s understanding of the temporary nature of existence motivated him to create an extraordinary life, and, ironically enough, he will live on through his creations for years to come.
It’s the day following the funeral. There’s a bunch of bright purple, pink, white, and yellow flowers on my desk. Someone left them at the front of the church because they wanted to do something tangible that indicated just how much they appreciated the woman’s life.
In writing this I’m also doing the same. My gift of flowers, of words, for the woman who no longer exists, but who is now a part of this temporary life that is extraordinary just because it is.