Last night I went to a "Celebration of Life" party for Pat Szwyrlo. She was diagnosed with brain cancer in December and died on April 15 at the age of 44.
When my brother died in a car accident in 1997, I experienced heart-wrenching grief for the first time. Someone mentioned being initiated into "the club." You think you will never stop crying. The lump in your throat, the pain in your chest, the tears that won't stop. You feel like nothing matters and you can't go on. It's unbearable. And just like it's impossible to describe the intense joy you feel when you have a baby, it's impossible to describe the intense pain you feel when someone you love dies. The only way to really know that emotion is to experience it. And when you experience it, your life changes forever... you are in "the club."
I went to the party for Pat last night, even though I didn't know her well. It's one of the things I do since joining the club. I remember the comfort I got from all the people that were at Chris' service...strangers that I didn't know giving me hugs and letting me cry with knowing looks of support. It wasn't sympathy as much as empathy. You know who else is in the club. They have been through this. They don't look away in awkwardness; they look into your teary eyes and tell you without saying a word that they understand what you're going through.
Being in this club is a horrible thing. It removes a light-hearted innocence that you can never get back. I always try to find the lessons in the painful emotions... I've had a very hard time with grief. I would prefer to not be in the club and I dread the grief that is still to come. But if I were to try to find the "goodness" in grief, here are some of the things I've learned from being in the club:
- Don't take life for granted. Every minute is a gift.
- Don't take the people in your life for granted. Love them. Don't sweat the small stuff.
- Live life to the fullest. Do all the things you've always wanted to do. Just do it!
- Take risks --maybe not the life-threatening type so much... but certainly take risks with love. What's the worst that can happen when you love someone? They don't love you back? Experiencing a broken heart is bad, but it is not the grief of death.
- Give... Don't worry so much about money. Spend it on people and experiences, more than things that sit on a shelf.
- Embrace your faith. Learn from my friend, Craig, who despite ALS, has the most awe-inspiring faith I've ever known.
- Have compassion for those that join the club. Go to the funerals, memorial services, and celebrations of life, with arms open to hold those that are in unbearable pain.
- Hold on to the best parts of the people you have lost and pass on what you learned from them. Keep them in your heart.