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.