The phone rings. In the blink of an eye, life, as you know it, is gone. I've gotten that call a few times in my life. In 1998, I was walking the streets of San Francisco after a business meeting when my sister called to tell me she was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. In 2000, my sister-in-law left a frantic and disturbing message about my father-in-law being dead at the bottom of the pool. Three years later we got a call from my mother-in-law going to the hospital with stomach pains. She was dead a week later from pancreatic cancer. This past Friday, I got a call from a close friend who is vacationing in Hawaii with a friend. He called to say that the friend he is traveling with suffered a brain aneurism. This vibrant, 40-something woman was enjoying her vacation one day, and the next, she is in a coma fighting for her life.
Everyone has their story of someone they know who ________ (fill in the blank) — was diagnosed with cancer, died from a heart attack suddenly, has Alzheimer's. Sometimes the person is young, sometimes they are old. It's tragic and it shakes us to the core. It jolts us into a very present awareness of life and our fleeting time here. We vow to live healthier, live in the moment, appreciate life. Yet, invariably the daily grind of life (with its drama, politics, pressures, expectations) resumes control and takes us away from what is important. We are back to sweating the small stuff, holding grudges, spending too much time on the unimportant. It's not realistic to "live every day like it's our last" because we have very real responsibilities that might prevent us from doing so. However, death can give us the gift of life if we have a healthy relationship with it.
I have definitely changed my life because of all of the illness and death that have happened in my life. I am hyper-aware of our limited time on this earth. Up until my sister was diagnosed with cancer, I lived for the future. What I did in the present was typically focused on what it would bring me in the future. Watching my 33-year-old sister go through chemotherapy, stem cell transplant, surgery, and radiation is etched in my brain. My sister is 13 years cancer-free (yay!), but I carry her tough fight with me always. Because of it, I changed my career path to do something I'm passionate about. I make time for the important people in my life and tell them I love them. I care about my health. I am kind to myself and others. I (try to) live in the moment.
While I think this is all a positive side of these sad happenings, there is a dark side. I worry a lot. I worry about the phone ringing and my life changing in an instant. I worry about losing my dad, my mom, my sister, my husband, my friends, my pets. I worry about them getting cancer, dying, having a stroke. I can be having an amazing holiday dinner with my family and instead of relishing in the joyous moment, I'm truly, physically sad because I know that some day I won't be able to celebrate this occasion with all of them. The reality of life is that we die. Yes, this awareness makes me appreciate the moment—which is a good thing. However, I'm so worried about the uncertain certain future that it also has the opposite effect of taking me out of the present moment—which is not a good thing.
There has to be a balance. Death gives us the gift of life. It's a reminder that our time is finite. But fearing it does us no good because it takes us out of the present.
Have you found life through death? If it has been a while and some of those life lessons have been lost, try not to wait for the phone to ring to be a reminder of who and what is important to you. You've got one life. Take control and make it the life you want.
Dina Colman is a health educator and writer. She has her MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern University and her Master’s degree in Holistic Health Education from John F. Kennedy University. She works with clients to help them live an integral life of health and wellness. She founded Four Quadrant Living, providing information and motivation for healthy living through nourishment of the four quadrants of our lives—Mind, Body, Relationships, and Environment. This blog is from the Mind quadrant. Contact Dina at firstname.lastname@example.org