By Lisa Sugarman
I don’t usually get somber. It’s just not how I’m wired. But sometimes it’s inevitable. And that’s because, as we all know, life just isn’t a straight line. We’d be delusional to expect only ups without any downs.
So I’m somber because I’m just coming off one of the downs—the most ultimate kind of down, actually, so I’m sure you can guess where this is going. I lost someone close to me. Someone I loved. Someone my whole family loved. And it stings. As it should. But mixed in with the throbbing of the loss is the soothing memory of a beautiful life that meant so much to everyone it touched. And it forced me to think about that one thing we all hate to think about.
Unfortunately, though, it’s someone’s death that usually gives us that brief moment of pause when we reflect on what we had and what it meant and how it impacted us and the people around us. And it’s just a shame that those moments of great clarity usually only come at times of deep grief and loss. But that’s just how the human psyche is designed. We all have a built-in safety switch on our brains that power down our extreme emotional tendencies when we’re faced with tragedy. It’s our survival mechanism. Because we certainly can’t be dwelling on death all day every day or we’d go clinically insane by the time we were ten. We’d never be able to get out of bed every day if we spent too much time obsessing about our mortality. We’d never get any actual living done. So instead, we think about it only when we’re forced to. And while that’s ok, I can’t help but think that we need to somehow strike a balance where it stays on the tip of our mind just enough to motivate our daily decisions.
I just wish there was a way we could manage to preserve that feeling of how precious life is all the time, the way we feel it when we’re faced with someone’s death. Because I think we’d all be a lot more inclined to live better, fuller lives if we could keep some speck of that feeling on our minds all the time. And I wish I had a good suggestion for how to do that. But I’m afraid I don’t. Well, wait, hang on, now that I think about it, maybe I do. Keep reading.
As I sat in the synagogue listening to the rabbi memorialize the Uncle Joe that I knew so well, I learned about the other Uncle Joe who I never really knew at all—the father, the husband, the businessman, the war veteran, the wild young boy. I listened as his entire life was laid out in front of us, organized chronologically, as most eulogies are, focusing on all the highlights. I sat with my cousins, sharing our grief, mingling our sadness with moments of laughter over the funny memories that most of us had forgotten. It was my Uncle Joe, after all, who Sloppy Joes were named after, you know. Or so he used to tell me. And I watched the impact that his life had on everyone in the room. I listened to my cousin Sue and her brother Dave share how deeply their father loved them and my Aunt Harriet. And it became plainly obvious that they were both the beautiful people they are because of who their father was to them.
And as I listened, it was impossible not to let my mind wander to what my own funeral would look and feel like. This is assuming I ever have one, because as I’ve said before, I’m not planning on looking aging in the eye, so a funeral won’t be necessary. But in the interest of a reality check, I still had to wonder.
It’s an odd sensation, imagining your own funeral and wondering how people will react to your death. I know it’s a little creepy. I get that. Kind of like picturing your parents having sex—you hate to do it because of how damaging the image can be, but somehow it manages to sneak into your thoughts on rare occasions. You know it’s a reality but the thought of it is just horrifying. Sorry, mom.
For me, though—someone who hates missing a good party—it’s tough to imagine not being around to enjoy the ultimate bash. Especially when it’s in my honor. So I guess that leaves me only one alternative, and that’s what my uncle’s funeral reminded me; I need to make absolutely sure that I live a kick-ass life now, while I’m here, so people have plenty of good memories to sustain them after I’m gone. I need to make damn sure now, while I’m here, that I make the biggest and most beautiful impact on my children and family and friends that I can. So that’s my advice. And I strongly suggest you consider it. Because in case you haven’t heard, we only have one dance card.
Look, I know talking about funerals is an uncomfortable conversation. One that you probably don’t want to have. And I don’t blame you. Mortality is a buzzkill. Plain and simple. But in case you haven’t noticed, we’re having the conversation anyway, so just hang in there and hear the rest of what I have to say. And maybe it won’t be quite as painful as you think.
For most of us, we tend to only focus on things like pre-need funeral arrangements and life insurance plans when our parents force it on us. Otherwise, it’s usually a case of out of sight out of mind. And that’s how the brain works. It takes the stuff that’s too emotionally heavy and compartmentalizes it into a tiny little solid steel room deep down in the back of your brain. The same place where Dave keeps all his thoughts about our girls dating.
But we need to consciously bring it out of the little impenetrable room and accept that it’s not as scary as we think it is. And I guess the only way to do that is to reconcile with the fact that it’s going to happen, so we just have to stay in the moment and focus on making as many of them matter as we can. Because remember, how easily something goes down when you try to swallow it depends entirely on the kind of bite you take. Death doesn’t have to be a miserable, painful, indigestible choking hazard. Instead, if you just consciously strive to live your best life, it can actually go down smooth, like an iced green tea latte, unsweetened and with one pump of peppermint.
So it was halfway through my uncle’s memorial service that it dawned on me, kind of like a brick directly to the face, how important it is that we leave an indelible, bright, beautiful mark while we’re here. And that whatever mark we leave—be it our mark on the world, our mark on our family, our mark on our children—we need to make our marks count. And, of course, the bigger the mark, the bigger the impact on the people we leave behind. Because as far as we all know, we only get one shot. So we need make sure we live big.
Lisa Sugarman lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Read and discuss all her columns at facebook.com/ItisWhatitisColumn. She is also the author of LIFE: It Is What It Is available on Amazon.com.