On Life and Death – A Conversation with My Kids

Posted on August 10, 2017

This year alone, my young adult children have lost four friends—one to a drug overdose, one to addiction-related suicide, one to cancer, and one to a freak motorcycle accident. Whether death is accidental, unexpected, or intentional, it commonly leaves us with some big and troubling questions:

  1. Why did this happen to him/her/their family/me? That question can never be answered clearly, no matter how many layers you peel back as you try to discover what led to the incident.
  2. What if this could have been prevented… if they got help, or if I did something, or if someone had been around to save them? Again, regardless of the imaginary scenarios we create, this question can never be answered with clarity.
  3. How can I ensure that this doesn’t happen again to anyone I know? How can I make sure that no one else feels this pain? Alas, there is no way to completely eradicate deaths due to substance abuse, illness, or accidents. Certainly we can make a difference and raise awareness of problems, but as we find a cure to one human illness, a new one seems to take its place. And as one drug is taken off the streets, another one is invented. Such is the nature of life.

So, my dear children, as I watch you enter adulthood facing—head on—the unpredictable, untimely, inevitable, and unavoidable end of lives dear to you, I ask myself what I can tell you. What will carry you through this beautiful life without your being consumed for too long by sadness, anxiety, or fear? There are three simple things to know:

Life is never complete without death.

They are two sides of a coin; one cannot happen without the other. Life ends in death, and death brings new life. This is the circle of life—one that has existed before we arrived and will continue after we leave. If you accept that truth, you will be free from the burden of fear. Don’t dance around death and cloak it with so much fear that it sucks the vitality out of you. When we avoid death, we lose the essence of life; we rob ourselves of its joy. If we spend our all our days fearing what we all know has to happen, that would be a terrible waste of life. We cannot look at death as the opposite of life. It is very much a part of it. The better answer is to…

Accept death.

When we accept that death is a part of life, we commit to living fully. If you accept that I may die tomorrow, you will enjoy every moment with me today. This is truly how we should live our lives—by being present, attentive, compassionate, kind, and enjoying the gift of life and the relationships we have. As Norman Cousins once said, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.

Yes, if I die, you will feel sad and you will miss me, but if you accept death as a part of life, those feelings of sadness will pass. Feelings are like waves; they come and go. They are impermanent. Of course, even if you accept death, you must cope with a time of sadness. Where should you turn in the moment when you feel bereft? What should you do? There is only one way…

Know who you are.

I’m not referring to knowing your physical self, your identity, or your personality. That you undoubtedly already know. But what about the you who actually runs the show, the energy that keeps you alive. There is a presence within you that is always attentive. Connect with that awareness. This attention, intuition, inner energy—whatever you want to call it—is ageless. Your essence is the same as it was when you were 5 months or 5, 15, or 25 years old. You can touch this essence through meditation. Make this a daily practice. Close your eyes and turn them inward. For just five minutes every day follow your breath.

There is no greater gift you can give yourself than to befriend your essence. It is yours through ups and downs. It is yours in life and death. It is what will make you go through life without being consumed by it. It is timeless and ever present and common to all of us.

So when you miss those friends who seem to have left you, know that their essence is in your essence. They are always with you. In that awareness, we truly begin to live without fear. And yours will be a life worth living.