(With One Bonus Lesson at the End)
My first introduction to death was at the tender age of 18. This was before I knew the first thing about living, so I sure didn’t know how to process the fact that people could just stop doing it. Especially important people, like my Daddy.
He was bigger than life to me, and his life seemed way more important to me than mine. I threw myself face down on the floor and began my first attempt to barter with God. Apparently, God wasn’t interested in reversing the process and taking me in Daddy’s place because I’m still here, and writing about it after all these years.
God has a way of giving us just what we need to survive at the time, and sometimes scarcely more than that. Somehow, I managed to get up off the floor and scrape together just enough of whatever it is that it takes to survive.
I had to make a lot of hard decisions that I wasn’t ready for back then. It was like going from zero to sixty—I grew up fast. I didn’t have much choice.
The tragedies in my life have continued. I have not only buried my father; I have also buried three sons. Two of them were infants, one was almost 17 years old.
I am forever changed. Some days I find the courage to talk about it and some days I don’t. It would be easy to wallow on the hard days, but today I choose to honor life by talking about what grief has taught me, in the hopes that it will help someone else when they go through the darkness.
- PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THINGS.
This seems like a no-brainer. I can’t elaborate too much on the obvious, but if I have learned anything it’s to put the people you love and your relationships above material possessions and the pursuit of them. The Bible, in Mark 8:36, asks, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
Don’t sell out your family for money or recognition. Don’t trade your time with them for anything that seems glittery and beautiful. You can’t get the moments that you lost back again. You can’t even get the moments that you spent back again, but at least you have the memories of those. Let your memories be full of laughter and joy when you can, but also go through the hard stuff with the ones you love. The darkest night spent with someone you care for is better than the brightest morning alone with your things.
2. WE ARE NOT IMMORTAL.
Surprise! Life here on this earth does not last forever. We die. Our forever is not going to be spent here in these bodies, doing this stuff. There’s really no need to save the best for last! Don’t keep your ideas to yourself. Use them! Get out your best dishes, wear your best clothes. Have dessert first if you feel like it (I don’t recommend this all the time though. It’s not that great for your waistline).
3. TAKE YOUR MOMENTS WHEN YOU CAN GET THEM.
Embrace the precious times of your life. You don’t know what the future holds! The Bible talks about this too (a very wise book), when it says in James 4:13 “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’ yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.”
Love on your family. Stare at your children. Watch them breathe. Take a moment to revel in their smiles. Say all those words you’ve been holding back. Just in case this is all you will ever have; make it the best moment it can possibly be!
4. IT’S OKAY TO LIVE AGAIN.
You are not betraying anyone by going on with your life. Continuing to breathe is not a curse, and you have no reason to feel guilty for it. God has appointed each of us a time to be born and a time to die (Yep, that’s from the Bible too).
If you are reading this, it wasn’t your time to die. It’s hard and it hurts and it’s unfair and all of that. But it’s the truth. Oh, and you aren’t God. It wasn’t your choice. You can let go of that now.
Keep breathing. Keep going. Keep trying. Make it a great life! Do you know what the absolute best thing is that you can do for the ones who have stopped living? For you to keep on living, and to lead a victorious life.
5. LAUGHTER REALLY IS GOOD FOR HEALING.
Don’t feel guilty for finding enjoyment in your life. Let the joy come back. It doesn’t mean there isn’t still heartbreak. It doesn’t mean you have forgotten. Joy and pain can inhabit the same house. Let them.
6. GOD KNOWS YOU’RE MAD AT HIM.
He can take it. This is His world. Nothing happens without His knowledge and permission.
It’s a hard pill to swallow. Everyone dies–also hard to get down, especially when that someone is your child or parent, spouse or sibling. Or grandparent.
You are insignificant to God because He allowed it to happen to you. It also is not a small thing that He gave His Son to die, knowing that He would ultimately beat death. I mean, that was the point.
He kicked death’s ass so I could see my kids again someday. Yeah, I was mad at Him for a long time. Sometimes I still am. Then, I remember the cross, and I get through. I know where my hope is.
7. WE AREN’T MEANT TO DO THIS ALONE.
Don’t isolate and expect to get through it all on your own. There’s no need in it. If you don’t have friends or family who will walk through your grief with you, find a recovery group.
There are moments when you need to shout, cry, fall apart, and vent. You might just want to share some funny old memories. Maybe you don’t know what to do with your anger and unforgiveness. That’s what these groups are for. People are better than things and substances for helping you to get through. They need you too.
8. LIFE IS A MIRACLE.
Do you know why you are still here? Neither do I. It’s a miracle. Treat each breath as the gift that it is. Embrace the fact that you are alive and go dance in the rain.
9. ALL WE LEAVE BEHIND IS WHAT WE GIVE TO OTHERS.
No accomplishment, no amount of money, no possession will matter after you are gone. When people think of you, let it be because they remember what an impact for good you made on their lives.
Stand up for what is right. Fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. Love everyone the same. Don’t discriminate because of color, social status, or wealth. Give everything you can give to other people. You can’t take one thing with you where you’re going anyway (no matter which direction that is).
10. IT’S OKAY TO CRY.
You can grieve for as long as you need to grieve. I believe that there are some losses that you will always grieve for on this earth. The loss of a child is one of those. If you need to cry, don’t let anyone tell you that you should be “over it.” Your grief is your grief. Feel it and live your life anyway.
11. YOU DON’T HAVE TO SPEND YOUR LIFE TRYING TO MAKE THEIRS MEAN SOMETHING.
Their life was not in vain, and neither was their death. It has already taught you so much! You have precious memories to hold forever. Their lives already had meaning, and they always will.
Don’t spend your whole life setting up foundations in their name, donating to causes in their name, furiously trying to immortalize them. Let them rest in peace.
You don’t have to make their life mean something. The best thing that you can do to honor them is to make your own life mean something! Work on that. Take responsibility for you. Get better so you can help other people.
12. THE NEXT “YOU” WILL BE DIFFERENT.
This journey that you are walking through grief will change you. That’s okay. You might think that you were meant to be that other person who was never touched by loss.
Things would have turned out another way. Perhaps you can make a case for that, but I doubt it. Life, death, and God did not steal anything from you. Remember that everyone’s time is appointed to them! That means that you are meant to be the person touched by loss. The question is “why”?
Use the things you have learned to help other people. Sure, you are different, but you’re not lesser than. You have a world of experience now that was very hard-earned. Don’t let it go to waste. Use it for good. When the opportunity comes, take it.
Bonus: SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO SWIM THROUGH THE RIVER
There are times in your life when you need medication to get you through the hard stuff. There’s no shame in taking it when you do. Other times we try to self-medicate by using all kinds of things–alcohol, narcotics, sex, food, distractions–just about anything you can think of that we believe will take our minds off the hurt.
They all work for a little while. The problem is, when you step back from all you have done to numb the pain or forget the hurt, it’s still there. Not only do you find the loss and grief is still right where you left it, but you have often piled a load of guilt and remorse on top of it through behaviors and addictions that you wish you could change.
It’s hard to turn your life around when you find yourself in a situation like that, but it can be done. You have to make the decision to embrace the joy and faith that are still in your life and turn around and swim through the river. Sometimes that’s the only way to survive, and then you can turn around and help others across too.
These are some of the surprising things that grief will teach you that you actually need to know. Somewhere down the road, you will have the chance to share them with someone else in a way that helps their heart. Doing it will help your own.
RIP Samuel Allen Dowden, born dead, July 17th, 1998