The weight of those who are gone

I thought I’d interrupt normal programming today (i.e. the 200 words project) to write about something that is top of mind and personal. I try very hard to abstract from events and focus on the essence of what I’ve learnt. This will not be easy to do in this case but I’ll try.

When I introduce myself to people I work with, one of the ideas I share to help communicate who I am is – I have been shaped a lot by death. Our family lost my uncle to an accident and my father to himself in a space of 3 years. Now, the typical reaction to this for the opposite person to say – I’m sorry. And, if we’re having a really upfront conversation, I generally explain more. You see, the hard part wasn’t that we lost 2 members of our family. The hard part is that my grandmother has, over the 17 years that have gone by, held those who’ve gone dearer to her than those who’re still here. I’m going to leave the details out here and instead just say that very few conversations with my grandmom in 17 years have gone by without us feeling the weight of our absent family members.

I wish this was a unique problem. Given my general comfort with topics that are generally perceived taboo or morbid, I’ve been fortunate to be trusted with information about so many families who have similar dynamics internally. The data I’ve collected over the years has led me to one important conclusion –  we need death education more than we do sex education.

In an average lifetime, we see at least ten births and ten deaths of people who are close to us. And, yet, very few hardly ever get comfortable with the idea of death. That’s a funny situation to be in as death is one among the few certainties of our life on this planet. So, that results in whole families torn apart, relationships broken, and many many unhappy years following a single event. There’s a wonderful Buddhist parable in which a woman goes weeping to the Buddha and asks him to bring her young son back from the dead. He asks her to bring a mustard seed from a house that has never seen death. So, she goes on a long search and comes back empty handed – every house she went to had seen death…

I wanted to write about this today as today was another day when I felt the weight of those who are gone. Today is actually my grandparents 50th anniversary. I’d have loved to interrupt normal programming to wish them a happy anniversary. But, as has been a trend in the past 17 years, there’s always an excuse to mar happy occasions. I’ve made peace with this fact after an “aha” moment 5 years ago. But, my mother hasn’t, for instance. And, that’s tough.

So, I thought I’ll do what I always do and share a few of my biggest learnings from these experiences.

1. Every person is responsible for their own happiness. This has two powerful implications. First, it is that you ought to worry most about your own happiness and not sacrifice that at the expense of others. That’s because, over time, you cannot help anyone else if you can’t help yourself. So, to be useful in the long run, take care of yourself first. Second, you can attempt to help others for a short while. But, after a certain point, it is their life and their responsibility. Don’t try to play god.

2. Really appreciate the people around you. If your mind is always stuck on the past, you’re never going to be able to enjoy the present or the future. All we have in this life is a collection of memories. Yes, there were great memories in the past with great people. But, there are equally great moments waiting in the future. For that, you have to really appreciate and be thankful for those who are with you now. Be great to the people you are with. Collect memories.

3. Express your love and gratitude. Once you learnt to appreciate the people around you, express you love and gratitude. Be generous with hugs, kisses, compliments, affection and love. We sometimes treat our heart as one that has space only for a few. It couldn’t be less true. My experience is that it only expands with time.

4. The world is your family. I’ve come to realize that there is so much family out there in the world. I count myself as a person rich in relationships as I’ve found an abundance of parents and siblings out in the world who’ve taken incredible care of me. I guess you just have to open your eyes to the possibility.

5. Take death education seriously. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about design firm IDEO’s efforts to “design death” and have those difficult conversations. I think we all have a duty to understand this certainty. If you’ve experienced in some form with a relative or family member, then I hope you’ll take the time to reflect, think, and have conversations about it. Death and the fear of it shapes more lives than you and I can even imagine. And, a lack of an understanding of this concept probably destroys more people’s happiness than diseases like cancer.

For my part, I’ll do my best to add more to conversation here. Death, depression and all such taboo topics are only taboo because we don’t spend enough time thinking about them and really understanding them. And, understanding them is strangely liberating.

One thing that does happen when you do think about these things is you realize how fleeting these moments are. The days feel long, but the years are really short. And, while life may be the longest thing we do, it is still really short in the big scheme of things. It is up to us to do something worthwhile with the time we have and spread as much love and joy as we possibly can instead of being caught in vicious cycles of unhappiness.

As I type these words, there are people who’re dying in various places. Many of these folk likely wish they could live a bit longer and tell the people they loved how much they cared about them – that’s the biggest regret of them all. Some others likely wish they’d lived a life with more meaning.

Happiness is not one of those things that comes assured on our birth certificate. Happiness is hard because it requires us to live a life close to our purpose and have real impact on the people on this planet. But, hard doesn’t make it impossible, of course. To make this life meaningful, to make it count – that’s entirely our responsibility.

And, what a great responsibility it is.