When death strikes, our world changes. Suddenly we realize that the assumptions and beliefs we live by every day are not necessarily the way life really is. Bad things can and do happen, not just to other people, but they can also happen to us and to the people we hold most dear.
When loved ones are taken by death or when tragedy hits the headlines we come to recognize that this world can be a very unsafe place to be, and that the plans and dreams we have for today or tomorrow can be shattered at any second by a random act of nature, a violent act of people we don’t even know or just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We are forced to see how brutal our world can be and how fragile our lives are.
Whenever death and loss hit us, we go into shock, we look for answers to why tragic events and losses could have happened and we reflect on our lives and our beliefs. Mourners, their caregivers and witnesses in the community are forced to learn quickly that:
- All of us are vulnerable and Death is inevitable. It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are, how religious you are, how much good you do for others, how many degrees you have, or how well you have planned for the future, death and grief come to us all. One hundred percent of us are going to die and one hundred percent of us will say goodbye to people we care for. Death is the great equalizer of all humankind. In tragedy we face our mortality.
- The most important things in life are not things. People and relationships are most important. After a tragic loss, survivors, their caregivers and witnesses to the tragic event feel compelled to get closer to family and the important people in their lives. When we experience loss due to death–especially sudden, unexpected loss–we live in fear of what might happen next. Writer C.S. Lewis put it this way in his book A Grief Observed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” In grief we live in fear of what tragic event will happen next and what other valuable people might be taken from us.
- Time is precious, and it shouldn’t be wasted. When loved ones die, we feel the regret for things said or not said, done or not done. We wonder why we didn’t do things differently and why we didn’t cherish the relationships that we were given in our lives. Our priorities change after loss. The “to do” lists and activities we once considered important seem trivial and even foolish in the aftermath of a loved one’s death and the onset of grief. We search for meaning, purpose and joy in the “now” we live in when we realize that tomorrow or the next minute with our loved ones may not be ours.
Will tragedy, death and grief continue? Unfortunately, yes. Important, loved ones will continue to die, tragedies will happen, and mourners will be left behind to grieve, hurt and pick up the pieces of their lives. But loved ones can be remembered and honored in our grief. The overflowing love we still have in our hearts for people no longer physically present can be expressed in healthy grief and in lives well-lived in memory of those loved ones lost. We will not just be those surviving our loved ones who die. We will be living memorials to their valuable lives which cry out to be remembered.
We mourners left behind can learn the lessons of loss, remember them daily and change how we live now. The physical relationships we still have can be treasured and appreciated now instead of after our loved ones and friends die. We can let them know how much we care for them now in words and actions. In addition, we can make each moment count now rather than living in the past which cannot be changed or worrying about the future which we may not have. Understanding now that this life is fragile, fleeting and far more important than we ever knew can enrich our lives and our relationships now. And when the time comes and we run out of nows, we can say goodbye to others who die and leave this life when we die with fewer regrets.
Remember, all we have for sure is now.
“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” James 4:13-15
Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT, director of GriefWorks, CounselingWorks and KidWorks.
Larry is also the author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise” Available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and your local bookstore. Available now for Nook and Kindle. Proceeds from the sale of the book benefit the free support services provided to mourning children and their families in GriefWorks.