What We Learn When Someone Young Dies

Yesterday I nearly had a panic attack while watching a movie about pandas. 

You might ask how cute, cuddly, endangered pandas could cause anyone anxiety. Well, they are endangered, but this angst was the self-centered kind not the I-must-save-the-world kind. The answer is simple and stupid: It was the middle of the afternoon, and I was at the public museum goofing off.

I had just dropped my daughter off for a class taking place at the museum and had decided to use the two hours to explore the place myself. I was hoping to take my mind off my lack of professional (i.e., paid) work for the week, which I had been obsessing about all morning. It wasn’t working. By the time I got to the panda movie, my anxiety had reached epic proportions. Knotted stomach, even more knotted neck. I just couldn’t relax.

As the previews played, I pulled out all the anxiety-fighting tools my therapist has given me. I reminded myself of my current contributions to our family, beyond bringing home the bacon (which I would never literally do since I’m a vegetarian). I focused on how hard I’ve worked since I was 14, reminding myself that not every moment in life must be productive.

 It wasn’t working because even though I am a full-time mom this summer and we’re in the process of buying a house and moving, I didn’t feel I was doing enough. I should be WORKING!

Then, a wakeup call slapped me in the face by way of Facebook messenger (evil, little, battery-draining app). A dear friend had sent me an update about her 37-year-old sister, who two days earlier had gone into cardiac arrest and was in the process of being taken off life support.

Sorry for the abrupt change from cute pandas to death, but that's how life is sometimes. 

Immediate tears and a different kind of knot in my stomach. How petty my anxiety was. I could have continued my self-indulgent obsessiveness. I could have sat there and cried yet again. I didn't do either. Instead, I remembered what my friend had said of her sister the night before when she called to tell me the horrific news. Even in her grief, she had said, “she’s lived a good, full life.”

How many people can say that about someone who hasn’t even hit 40? And yet, it was true. That one statement captured all of the sorrow this woman had suffered and all of the joy she had given and received. She has lived a beautiful life.

I contemplated those words and then thought of all the times I’ve read about how when people are at the end of their lives, they never say they regret not working more. Work anxiety instantly replaced by a bit of shame and guilt but more so by gratitude.

So, I watched the panda movie and tried to enjoy every single second of it. When I picked up my daughter, we explored more of the museum together and I didn’t yell at her even once. When I went for a run that evening, I focused on the beauty of the summer day. When our family headed out that night for playground time and dinner, I savored it all.

It felt wrong to do these things, knowing my friend's sister would not. Yet, it also seemed like the most powerful thing to do in the face of death.

Today is a new day, full of its own challenges, but I will try desperately to remind myself to be grateful. Life is challenging. Life is beautiful. Life is fleeting. And life should not be squandered. 


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