What Death Can Teach Us about Life
I attended a funeral the other week for the husband of one of my colleagues. He was a relatively young man, only three years older than me. I did not know him very well but wished I had known him better after I listened to several very touching eulogies that clearly described a very special person.
The graveside service took place in a beautiful cemetery on an unusually gorgeous early fall day, with a pure blue sky and a blazing sun that brought the temperature to at least 80 degrees. As family members eulogized their departed husband/father/grandfather/brother, I was struck by certain consistent themes. Though he died young, he lived a very full life because of the values he lived by. While he was a very accomplished engineer, no one spoke of those accomplishments. Everyone talked about his love for family and the way that love was expressed.
Every Friday evening, over many years, he and his wife gathered their children, other relatives, and, later, their sons-in-law and, even later, their grandchildren, for a Shabbat dinner (a celebration of the beginning of Shabbat, or the Sabbath, which, for Jews, is a day of rest and spiritual rejuvenation, the seventh day). As I listened to this family’s commitment to gathering every Friday evening, which was more about family values than religious ones, I struggled to imagine how they could have done that. I thought about how Friday nights, in our family, especially as the children got older, generally consisted of people doing their own things with friends or sports. What had this family sacrificed to maintain such a strong and consistent tradition of being together, I wondered?
But clearly it was not a sacrifice. It was, instead, the cornerstone of a bond that tied this family together in a very strong way and gave a clear message to everyone about what was really important in life. It underscored what I have often said to parents about the importance of having family traditions that become the ties that bind.
As I listened to the eulogies, I could hear how all those around this very special man had been deeply touched by him and how those values had been passed on to all who joined this family over the years, even the grandchildren, who, while young, each contributed their thoughts, previously dictated to their parents, of special memories about their grandfather. We should all be so lucky to have enriched the lives of those close to us the way this man had. Even though I feel I was (and remain) a very good father, it made me think about what else I could have done that would have similarly benefited those close to me. I know now I could have done more.
It wasn’t just Shabbat dinners. This large, extended family did a lot together. There was much humor expressed in the eulogies about how they would take over restaurants or a large area of the beach. There was a lot of humor about meal planning. This was definitely a family that liked to eat together! The humor also struck me. I believe any time that whenever a funeral service is filled with humorous stories it reflects a warmth and a richness of lives shared.
The service was presided over by a cousin who, in trying to capture another aspect of what made this man so special, quoted from the Scriptures a phrase that is so important for all of us to reflect on. “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion…” I am very happy with “my portion.” I am lucky in that way. This mostly comes from having grown up with very little and having learned to appreciate everything that I have been able to experience in what, for me, eventually has become a very rich and full life.
While I stood there, in the warmth of the sun and the radiating warmth of genuine love for a lost loved one, I reflected on stories from many of my patients who repeatedly say to me, “I seem to have such a good life. Why am I so unhappy?” Even more so, I thought about the many couples who sit across from me and insist there just isn’t enough time to spend with each other. I thought about the world we live in. There is so much focus on wealth and power and achievement, which creates the context for so much personal unhappiness, because all too often it misses what really matters in life, the personal welfare and the relationships of society’s members. We have become increasingly isolated, as individuals and families, in recent decades. This man’s life tells us why it is so important to make the sacrifices necessary to have meaningful relationships in your life – a partner, children, good friends.
I also realized as I listened that death has played an important role in teaching me to focus on the daily, often simple, joys in life. My father died when I was just a senior in college. That experience taught me that life can be unexpectedly short. Of course, since it was my father, it also made me anxious about my own longevity, which only further underscored the importance of not putting off time to enjoy life and time to enjoy those who are special to you. This message was even more powerfully brought home to me by another death. Though it was only a friend, it hit me at a very significant stage of my own life and in a way that made the message undeniably clear.
A week after my 30th birthday, the wife of our closest friends died suddenly from an aneurysm. It was an incredibly painful experience. The husband spoke to me about his new responsibility as a single father. He had been working long hours to be the best possible provider he could be, but that meant long days and limited time for his wife and child. Now he made the decision that he would work fewer hours and spend as much quality time with his daughter as possible. A little late for his relationship with his wife (and for him), but very important for his relationship with his daughter (and, again, for him).
The irony of this was that years later he was able to say he was actually making more money because he learned to be more selective about his clients and not just try to serve anyone who came to him. He had always believed that in order to be the best possible provider he had to accept every possible opportunity to add business, never being selective, always afraid he wouldn’t make enough. It’s amazing how many men, and, increasingly, women, make this same mistake. Then wonder why they are stressed out and unhappy.
I learned a lot from this experience. Within three years, I made a significant career move that allowed me much more time to spend with my family. I might have achieved greater fame and fortune if I had stayed on my fast-paced rise in my field but I would never have the wonderful memories that I now have about all those years while my children were growing up. Nor would I have likely had the opportunity to have surrounded myself with a wonderful group of colleagues who have been an important part of my life for many years.
So death has taught me a lot about how to get the most out of my life. It has served to underscore my strong belief that having a good life is not about getting top grades, getting into the best college, making lots of money, or having a big home – in the end, a good life is about the quality of the relationships we have had with the people who are closest to us on our journey.
I hope those of you who are reading this can become “happy with your portion” without necessarily losing a loved one in order to learn that lesson.
Heller, K. (2018). What Death Can Teach Us about Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 2, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-death-can-teach-us-about-life/