Death: Life's Greatest Teacher

This week, we’re sharing the three greatest lessons April Koontz of Daughters Unite has learned from the sudden losses of her brother, cousin, and uncle. Daughters Unite is a social networking site dedicated to helping caregiving women. We are honored to share April’s positive insight on how her grief has taught her many important lessons, strengthening her as a person as well as her relationships.

On Aug. 14, 2010, my family’s world completely stopped. My 34-year-old brother was found dead by my parents of an unintentional overdose. Despite my dad’s heroic CPR efforts, he did not return to this world. That day, I sat in complete shock as I listened to the paramedics zip up the body bag and carry him down the stairs and out to the ambulance. I can still recall the sound six years later.

I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced that once you’ve stood with one foot here and one foot on the other side of life’s “thin veil,” life as you know it up to that point is forever gone. Yes, you still get up in the morning and brush your teeth and make dinner and mow the lawn and sit in traffic, but it’s not the same —  because you’re not the same. How can you be? Think about it. There’s nothing that engages every one of our senses simultaneously and as intensely as death, which, ironically, is what living life to the fullest is all about.

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Since the death of my brother, we’ve lived through the sudden deaths of my cousin and uncle. That’s three sudden deaths over a span of five years. Yes, our family has suffered deeply. We’ve grieved and continue to grieve, and the grief has etched more lines on our faces and permanent scars on our hearts. We’ve experienced sleepless nights and painful days. There are songs we can’t bear to listen to anymore. There are TV shows — even comedies — too painful to watch and recipes too painful to make. Even though, and thankfully so, time dulls the sharpness of the sting, it never goes away completely. Every birthday and every holiday still hurt to some degree. Their absence is always apparent on some level.

The good news is that with the heart-wrenching pain comes heart-warming lessons that strengthen our relationships and stretch our character. For our family, here are the three greatest ones:

•    Stupid, petty arguments are stupid and petty. There is nothing worse than receiving a call that someone you are not speaking to for whatever reason has died. Death’s finality is harsh. If you’ve got bad blood with someone in your life — do your part to make amends. There’s no guarantee they’ll reciprocate, but do your part to ensure you don’t have regrets on your end. Note: I’m not suggesting there aren’t exceptions to this rule in cases such as abuse, neglect, addiction, etc. What I’m referring to is truly petty things like you not being invited to an event or someone made a snide comment about your outfit, or you don’t see eye to eye on politics. Our family is now very quick to apologize and clear the air. We keep the lines of communication and love open at all times.

•    Time is a commodity. Spend it wisely. Far too often we ignore our soul’s nudges to send a card or text, make a call, or drop by and see someone. We’re just too busy. We’ll get to it next week or month or year. Pay attention to the nudges and follow them. Many times the reason for the push can’t be seen by the naked eye, and more often than not a great surprise is waiting. Our family is now big on cards, meals, calls, texts, and supporting our friends and extended family. Life is short. Pay attention and love fiercely — especially when it’s not convenient.  

•    Be prepared to die. This one is probably the biggest lesson I have to offer. Being prepared to die is the greatest gift you can ever give your peeps. It removes the added stress of untangling the administrative nightmare that comes with a person’s death and allows them to be present to you, the celebration of your life, and their grief. They will be in a haze that can last for years after you’re gone. Having a plan in place will help them see through the haze a little more clearly. Most of us create a list for the person caring for our pets or watching our house while we’re on vacation, right? It’s the same concept. Schedule the time to get your affairs in order. You’ll be amazed at how alive you feel after completing it.

There’s nothing I’d love more than to smell my brother’s aftershave as he walks past me or laugh uproariously with my cousin at the kitchen table or hear my uncle’s not funny jokes again. There’s nothing I’d love more than to wipe away the grief my parents carry with them over losing their only son. Thankfully, most of the time, I’m at peace with this reality and truly grateful for the awakening their transitions have given me.

I once heard Jaclyn Smith recite a quote her assistant had written following the death of Farrah Fawcett:

“They’re everywhere, and they’re nowhere, but they’re there.”

Thank you, Jaclyn Smith’s assistant. I carry this with me every day.