Full Disclosure: Please note that this post contains content that some might find upsetting or triggering.
For many of us, death is something that we never really think of. It seems far away and distant, something that happens to other people, people who are a lifetime away from where we are. But we can take learn many life lessons fro it.
It’s only when death comes close to us. When someone’s sick, or when someone close to us dies that everything changes. We suddenly remember how fragile life is, and how finite time is.
When my Dad recently passed, suddenly, my whole perspective on life changed and I felt a complete paradigm shift. I knew nothing would ever be the same again.
But with all the pain, grief, and emptiness that followed, there was a positive side. There are some very good lessons that I’ve taken away and that we can all take away, that can transform our lives for the better.
While a post about death might seem downright out of place on a career and personal development site, after considering long and hard if this post belonged here, I decided to share it because there is value in it. Because while it might seem less optimistic than what you read here, the opportunity for learning and developing is too great to ignore.
By sharing these lessons with you, I hope that you’ll use them as fuel, and as motivation to take action and start changing your life for the better, today.
So with that here they are…
12 Life Lessons I Learned From The Death of A Loved One
1. Forgive Yourself
Many years ago a classmate of mine passed away. We would ride the bus together, sit together in class, and chat about all kinds of things.
The day I found she had passed away, I remember sitting at the bus stop wondering where on earth she was. Who would I have inane chit-chat with now? It was a quiet bus ride.
When I got to class, we were told of the news. Sarah was gone and she had taken her own life.
The whole class went to her funeral. I’ll never forget it.
After her passing, I was wracked with guilt. How could I sit next to her, talk to her, laugh with her every single day, and know nothing? Even on the day before it happened, I remember us talking and laughing. How could I not have realized something was wrong? How could I have missed this?
For a long time, I felt like the most awful person on the planet.
As I write this, I have come to a revelation-you see, I have long been very sensitive to the feelings of those around me. I take great care to bring people into conversations, to make them feel included and heard. I hate small talk and will always opt for digging deeper to understand who the person I’m talking to is deep down.
Now, as I reflect on this, I see that perhaps, this has developed out of what happened with my friend. I never wanted to be in that position ever again.
Years later, another friend of mine would pass away, another victim of suicide. He was such a wonderful person, and one of the best conversationalists I have ever known. When I found out, my head went into a spin. How could this happen, again?
This time, I had known he was unhappy. He had changed. He had struggled. But again, I became wracked with guilt about not having done anything to help him.
Finally, after my Dad recently passed away, I became so guilty about all the things that I should have done, or should have said but never did. I started to see myself as the worst daughter in the world.
What all these experiences have taught me is the power and need for self-forgiveness. Guilt is something that eats away at you, gnawing away, every day.
Until you set yourself free of it and forgive yourself, you will never be able to move forwards and be happy.
Your guilt may not be about the death of a loved one, but I’m sure you have many things you have not forgiven yourself for. If this is the case, do it now. For your own sake.
It took me years to get over the guilt after my first friend passed away and months to get over the guilt of my second friend passing. but I learned the lesson. And after my Dad died, I took note. I made a proactive and very conscious effort to forgive myself. For everything. And the healing effects have been incredible.
2. Forgive others
Just as you might feel guilty about the things you might have done wrong to others, I’m sure the shoe has also been on the other foot. But holding on to anger, hate, resentment or any other negative emotion is only damaging to yourself.
Bitterness and anger never lead anywhere good. You’re holding on to negative energy and this energy will only destroy you and hold you back from the good things you deserve. I believe that holding onto negative energy is a powerful and destructive force and one of the biggest ways that many of us hold ourselves back from happiness.
Meanwhile, the other person has moved on with their lives. Perhaps they forgave themselves long ago and now they’re living their best life. This is why it’s so important to forgive.
But that’s not all. By not forgiving the other person, you’re allowing them to have power over you, rather than exercising the power you have to forgive, let go, and move on. Opening yourself up to receive happiness in the process.
3. Believe in yourself and go after your dreams wholeheartedly
Many of us allow life to crush our spirits and stop us from dreaming and believing in our ability to make our dreams become reality. Some of us say we’re being realistic and that we’ve just “grown-up”. But often, what’s happened is that we’ve given up on ourselves, we’ve given up on going for the things we want, and on becoming the people we were put on this earth to be.
Your soul knows who you are. Deep down you feel it. When you have that spark when you feel that flutter when you feel alive and full of energy. You are on the right path.
But for many of us, who we were meant to be might not fit in with what society, our family, our friends, or the world has come to accept as “normal”. Or it’s not what’s “expected of us” So we put our dreams in a box. And we seal it tight.
But what we fail to realize is that what we’re doing is putting our truest selves in a box- and turning our backs on who we are.
When faced with death and when you think about your mortality, suddenly, one thing becomes clear. That you should have gone for it after all.
You start to wonder “what if” “If only”
One thing about myDad was that he went for his dreams. He had done so much in his lifetime. As I sat with him in his final days, I couldn’t help but wonder, ” If I was to die right now, how would I feel? Would I feel like I’d lived my life exactly how I wanted? Would I feel like I’d pushed hard enough for the things that I wanted?”
Do everything in your power to bring your dreams to life. Because you have one life, and it’s yours to live and enjoy. After all, if not you, then who?
4. Be happy now
One of the biggest life lessons I learned was to be happy now.
You see, I’ve always been the type of person who’s very future-focused. Setting goals, planning, and always looking to the end of the month, quarter, year. And yet death still shakes me, ironic, I know.
This future focus has its benefits. For one it gives you an ability to foresee potential problems before they come up. But it also has many drawbacks.
One thing about always looking ahead is that you can forget to enjoy life in the moment. You can forget to be present.
For so long, I did something which I know many of us are guilty of, and that’s making my happiness contingent on some future state.
“I’ll be happy when…”
And when can be anything.
I’ll be happy when I’ve completed this project
I’ll be happy when I get an A*
I’ll be happy when I get straight A’s
I’ll be happy when I’ve lost weight
I’ll be happy when I find the love of my life
And on and on and on…
The list of whens never ends, and that’s the problem. There’s always another task to complete, another achievement to get under your belt, another way in which you can improve yourself and your life.
The thing is that there’s no reason to put happiness on hold until you reach these destinations.
I’m glad to say that I finally saw the light and realized that the happiness we seek is not found in the thing itself, but the pursuit. This means you can be happy WHILE.
Be happy WHILE you work towards attaining the grades you want
Be happy WHILE you become healthier and more active as you move closer towards the fit and healthy body you desire
Be happy WHILE you meet new and interesting people, one of which may be the love of your life.
This shift from saying when to while is life-changing. Because it means that you can be happy right now. Rather than waiting for a when that may never come.
5. Don’t put things off
If not now, then when?
Happiness isn’t the only thing we put off. There are likely hundreds of things that you’ve put off in your life so far.
Some of these action items are probably minor. But others might be major. Just like we tend to think we’ll be happy when some event happens, we also tend to want things to be perfect before we take action.
This might show up as…
“I’ll start a business when…”
“I’ll travel the world when…”
“ I’ll start my fitness training program when…”
“I’ll change careers when…”
The problem is that you don’t know what’s around the corner.
As an obsessive planner and perfectionist, this is something that I’ve struggled with immensely. But life has its way of teaching you the lessons you need to learn.
Because there is no perfect time to do anything. There is only now.
Yes, some moments might be more optimum than others. But the truth is when we fall into this mindset of waiting for something to happen before we take action on something we supposedly want, what we’re doing is living in our fear.
You’re not waiting till the economy is better to start your business, you’re waiting till you’re not afraid. Just like you’re not waiting till you’ve mastered every skill under the sun before you go for that promotion.
And perhaps these perfect moments do sometimes come around. But that’s not often the case. The way life is, something will always happen to put a crimp in your perfect plans. You get laid off, you injure yourself, a family member gets sick, and suddenly, the best time to do the thing you want to do but have been putting off doing… is yesterday. And the best moment has passed.
Because that is how life is. So, if you ever find yourself thinking you’ll do something when…ask yourself this “What is it that I’m afraid of ?” Then go for it!
6. Be brave
Have you ever wanted to do something before being put off by someone else’s concerns or worries?
Or maybe there’s something you’ve wanted to do for ages but you can’t get past the fear that things won’t work out?
But that niggle in the back of your head never seems to go away. However much you ignore it or push it to one side. Some part of you still aches to do this thing.
We are primitive creatures at our core. We have our primitive brains that will always look for danger, that will always make fear show up.
But you can’t live your life in fear. Never taking action, never making bold moves, never going for things purely out of this fear.
And if this point sounds quite similar to point number 5, that’s because I can’t stress enough the importance of moving past your fears.
As I sat with my Dad in his final days, talking to him about all that he’d done in his life ( I talked, and he listened, since he could no longer talk by this time), I realized just how brave he had been all his life.
As a black African man living and working in Europe, he had pushed boundaries, challenged people, and broken barriers. He had been bold. Even though it wasn’t always easy.
And this is what we all must do-
Be brave, be bold, and take action.
7. Be kind
You’ve probably heard the saying, “ Kindness doesn’t cost a thing” and it has been said in many different ways by various different people over the years.
Sitting with Dad in his final days, I had this heightened sense of how the smallest kindnesses can mean so much to someone and can make their whole life more bearable.
I think it’s because when someone is slipping away and there’s nothing you can do for them, you think of every little thing that might make them more comfortable. That might make them feel better under the circumstances.
And this has stayed with me.
But why wait for someone to be dying. We all have opportunities every single day to make someone’s life better. It doesn’t have to cost anything and it doesn’t have to be a huge grand gesture.
Something as simple as telling a stranger they look lovely in an outfit could be the small thing that brightens what might be a difficult day for them.
So, take every opportunity to be kind-
I was also reminded of how fragile we all really are, however hard we might seem on our exterior. And a little kindness can give someone much-needed strength.
8. Always be yourself
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from the death of a loved one is how much time we all spend not being true to who we are.
We spend too much time not being fully ourselves, wishing we were someone else or even acting like, and being anyone but ourselves.
I think this struck me because the moment things became a matter of life and death, everything else melted away and seemed very trivial.
I wondered… why do we all care so much what other people think? Why do we sometimes struggle to speak our minds and just say what we need to say? and surely all that matters during your time alive is making sure you show up as who YOU truly are and get your true self out there.
At that moment, I saw clearly how nothing matters more than understanding the person you are, who you’re meant to be, and letting your light shine (Cheesy I know). And I believe that if we all do this, then amazing and unexpected things can happen.
The other important reason to be yourself is that while you’re busy being someone else, the person you think you ought to be, you will never know the connections you’re missing out on, the depth of the relationships you could have if you would just allow yourself to be you, unencumbered by anything.
9. Don’t sweat the small stuff
Every day we all have a million different thoughts that go through our heads. A large number of these I’m sure, are minor concerns.
Like laying in bed worrying about something as silly as not quite wording an email right and how you came off to the person on the other end.
This might seem like a ridiculous because it is. But if you’re anything like me then you’ve no doubt concerned yourself with such trivia. Yes, I’m talking about freaking out, getting bugged over really small and insignificant things.
These small niggles, hang-ups, and bugbears fill our heads at the expense of better, more positive, and more worthy thoughts.
It sounds like a minor lesson but if you’ve ever laid awake at night replaying a conversation and thinking about what you should have said instead, then this is for you.
Often these silly things can take us over. Yet when confronted by the reality that you will someday die, it all pales into oblivion.
So, if it’s not important on the grand scheme of things, then let it go.
10. Worry is a waste of time
So it’s not good to sweat the small stuff. But what about the bigger things in life? Surely there are things that warrant worry, that deserve it even.
Well, that may be the case. But did worry ever solve anything?
Sitting by my Dad’s bedside, I reflected on all the worries I had, and even the big ones suddenly didn’t seem worth worrying about. Sure, many of them required me to take some sort of action, but action and worry are not the same things.
When I viewed these situations from this newly found lens, it was freeing.
And I wondered about all the nights spent worrying.
What my brain was trying to tell me in these hours lost in worry was to make a plan, make a decision, take some form of action. The worry was just a placeholder since I wasn’t yet clear on what decision, plan, or action I should take.
I see this now.
[Worried about work? Here are 7 Simple Strategies To Stop Worrying About Work]
11. You can’t save everyone
Helping people, caring for people, and being kind are all good things. But one piece of advice that I received from my Dad on his death bed was “ don’t try to save everyone”
You should probably know that my Dad was a Doctor. Saving everyone was his life’s work. Saving everyone was what he did for a living. And here he was telling me that I shouldn’t try to do the same?
The funny thing is, I knew exactly what Dad meant. There were two parts to this profound advice.
I’ve always tried to help the people around me in whatever way I could. Sometimes this meant nagging to death, giving unsolicited advice, or doing what many would call, trying to live other people’s lives for them. This was my own personal brand of trying to save everyone. And it was exhausting.
Because ultimately, no matter how much you give in nagging, time, teaching, or anything else, people are not in your control. So while you might think that you’re saving your sister from a bad relationship, saving your brother from liver disease, or saving your friend from themselves, you’re never really saving anyone.
People must save themselves. You can’t save them and you certainly can’t save anyone who doesn’t want to be saved. So give support, give a listening ear, and be there, but understand that we all must take the actions necessary to save ourselves.
12. Use it or lose it
My father was always a strong man. Strong-willed. Strong in body and strong in spirit. But things went south and by the time he passed away, he was quite sick.
What it made me realize is the importance of using everything you’ve been given in life.
Everything you have can disappear in a moment. Your health can fade, you can lose your mind, you can become sick and infirm, you can lose your memory. All of it is not permanent. Your job is to keep moving. In body, mind, and spirit. Keep moving and keep learning.
Because one thing that’s certain is that nothing stands still. Everything is either growing or in decline so, you either use it or lose it.
I hope that these lessons that I’ve learned will be of use to you and I truly hope that you will take them on board and they will enrich and enhance your life.
Because one final thing that death has taught me is that life is indeed precious and we must make the most of it.
You might now want to read: 5 Simple Ways To Stop procrastinating So You Can Get The Most Important Things Done