Death is a hard part of life. I lost my grandfather two weeks ago and my brain has been flooded with memories and thoughts since then. We knew it was coming, he lived an incredible life and passed in his sleep, which is really all you can ask for when you see someone at the end of their time here. I’m someone who loves to learn and loves to search for meaning so I’ve been thinking non-stop about both of my grandparents recently. They died within 14 months of each other.
What I really wish is that I had soaked in every second that I had living grandparents. I wish I’d have given more hugs and asked more questions while they were still able to do that. I wish I had spent more than a week a year flying out there to sit with my grandmother so I could watch Wheel of Fortune and read trashy magazines with her. You don’t really think about that as a kid and it’s what I crave so badly now. I wish I could rewind and go back as an adult and relive our beach trips and our Saturday morning pancakes and my grandmother’s overflowing fridge.
I’ve been thinking about all of that and what’s important to me now. After the funeral last week, the girls in my family sat in a pile of costume jewelry from my grandmother’s jewelry box and sorted it out to take what we wanted to keep. I so badly wanted pieces that would remind me of my time with them every day. But how do we keep that memory alive past the “stuff”?
One of the most important things to me that we can take away when we experience death is what the person who passed on taught us. What did they stand for that we can take and pass on to make our world better and their legacy strong?
The overwhelming theme with both of my grandparents was helping others and their very well known open-door policy. And yes, I mean their literal open door. My grandmother spent years as a guidance counselor and my grandfather was a chemistry teacher. We’ve hear over and over after they passed how when they saw a kid struggling, they gave tough love to get that kid on the right track. My grandma helped teen moms start their lives and my grandfather stayed late in his classroom when he had a student that needed more of his time. Together they welcomed a kid headed in the wrong direction into their home. His name was Joe and he moved in with my mom’s family when he had nowhere else to go. When he was 18, my grandma walked him into a recruiting office and help him start his journey of service to our country. Joe told me at her funeral that they saved his life.
They were simple people, nothing was ever over the top…except food. They had a house full of food because their door was always open. They both grew up in rural southern towns and cooking was just what you did. She didn’t ask who was coming for any given meal, they just left their door open and started cooking. She’d go to “the price club” aka Costco once a week (which I now see was her modern twist on that open door farm life) and just buy what she found. She cooked it in mass and knew that someone who needed either the food or the company would inevitably waltz in. If no one came that day, it went in the fridge for the next meal. I’ve never ever seen them turn anyone away for anything. When you screwed up, they loved you through it.
So that’s my lesson. That’s what I can take from their lives to use in my own life and pass along when we have kids someday. We may not love in the exact same way (I’m not keeping my door unlocked, let’s just be honest) but I do love to love other people and I love to fill my home with people that I love and the people they love. I hope on days when I’m feeling selfish or questioning how I should react to someone else, that I remember the compassion and unconditional love I learned from these two amazing humans.
The reality is, not everyone in our life will give us a good lesson by their own example. Maybe the person in your life who passed away is an example of what you DON’T want to be, and that’s a pretty incredible takeaway too. I had a family member pass away years ago who made a lifelong series of horrible decisions and who I chose to not be around because really, I was terrified of her. The plus side in that? It’s kept me at bay from making the mistakes that haunted her. I’ve seen the collateral damage of those choices and I’m so aware of them that they aren’t mistakes I’ll ever make myself. For that, I’m grateful to her.
So there is something important to take from any death that really impacts you. For me, it’s given me a little bit of closure, another sense of purpose and gratitude for the lessons life has given me. I don’t have any of their furniture or really many of the material things they parted with but I think they would love knowing how far reaching their impact was.
Spend time thinking about what your loved ones who have passed have left with you. How can you make that a part of who you are proud to be? What have we learned that we can take with us every day? And…also, what are the lessons we hope continue after us? What will generations after us learn from the example we set? SO much to think about.