What the afterlife can teach us: a gentle reminder to those in grief

I think about death - a lot. I’ve done so for years, ever since I was a child. I think about when it will happen, what it will feel like, how it will happen, if I’ll know it did, if I’ll be ready, and, of course, I think about what will happen after it does.

For years I thought this preoccupation of mine was a way to understand something I couldn’t and had been fortunate enough not to experience. The truth is, I’d never really suffered much loss. At least, not at an age when I’d be able to comprehend as much. Not in a way where I could actively feel someone’s absence every single day they were gone.

I used to think that if I could imagine it happening maybe it wouldn’t be such a surprise when it actually did. Maybe the pain wouldn’t be so intense. Maybe the impact wouldn’t be as hard. Maybe, if I could prepare myself, I might be able to handle it better than I feared I ultimately would.

Last year I lost my best friend of fifteen years and my Grandma who’d lived with us for nearly twenty, within weeks of each other. Imagining what things would be like when they were gone was intended to prepare me for their inevitable absence, but now, those moments only conjure up regrets in having wasted precious time better spent asking questions I would never get to ask.

Now, more than ever, I’m acutely aware of death. Of course, living in a desert is its own constant reminder. But, being immersed in such a space has afforded me a completely different perspective on life which, is the strange miracle of death, actually; the ironic beauty of the perspectives we shape and how they then shape us after a soul departs. In all the time I spent contemplating death I never gave much thought to the possible gifts it bestows in its wake.

A strange thing happens when you suffer a great loss - you are given an opportunity to see the world and the people in it in very different ways. Your relationships start to change. You change. You feel more compassion, empathy, and become hyper aware of how enormously precious time is and how and with who you want to fill it.

When I think about death now, I image I know exactly how and when it will happen, and then I focus on how that might effectively influence the way I’m living my life from that moment forward. Nearly every time I do this, I find myself completely and utterly present, filled with an overwhelming amount of gratitude. Not only for realizing how lucky I am for the people in my life and my circumstances, but for simply being on this planet to begin with, witnessing its beauty and taking advantage of the opportunities I have to say and do things I might not otherwise.

I once heard someone say that in order for us to live, we must first die. Which, initially, didn’t make much sense. After all, we can only live and die once. But, that same person then told me it’s possible to live many lives and die many deaths, multiple times, throughout our one. When you think of that in terms of winter and spring for instance, or of breakups and meet cutes, you begin to get a sense of what they were talking about. In order to truly appreciate and understand life, we must first endure death - whether that’s of a loved one, a phase of our lives that’s come to pass, a previous version of ourselves we’ve outgrown, or, in cases like mine, all of these at once.

There will always be ups and downs, good days and bad, and to this I am privy. But, in my darkest of days this awareness manages to bring me calm, optimism, and hope. If nothing else, in the very least, it brings me present enough to appreciate the gifts I’ve been given. Much like running a marathon for someone who’s lost their legs, I live my life for those who no longer have one. I take them with me everywhere I go and am open to the journeys I find their memory taking me on as well.

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