Almost a decade later, reflecting on lessons learned.
We’ve all heard the story of loss. We’re familiar with the stages of grief. Shock, anger, eventual acceptance. But what happens when this isn’t just an abstract process? When it’s real.
What do you do, practically, when someone you love dies? How do you go on?
I never thought anything awful would ever happen to someone in my family. It was the kind of thing that happened on TV, in newspapers, to other people. I didn’t ever expect to be one of them. I was blissfully unaware of the pain that would come to shape the course of my life.
On the day we found out, I was woken by my dad. It was early on a Saturday morning. I heard my mom crying behind him, and immediately knew that whatever he said would be bad. I started crying too. And when he told me that my brother had been killed in an avalanche, I couldn’t breathe.
The days, and weeks, and months that followed are a blur. I didn’t leave my house for almost a month, except to head to Canada to retrieve his remains with my dad.
It felt like my whole world had collapsed in on me.
But this loss has shaped my life. I am a completely different person than I would’ve been had this accident never happened. I have not let this tragedy ruin my life, I have found my silver lining… I have learned eleven things which help to guide me to a better life. These are the lessons that loss has taught me. Don’t wait for someone you love to die to learn yours.
1. It’s all a matter of perspective.
So you lost an important spreadsheet, or you tweeted something that caused a bit of a storm. So what? Let’s think about how important it really is. Are you going to die because it happened? No? Ok, move on. It’s not worth spending any of your life worrying about. I struggle with this every day, I’m a naturally anxious person. But it’s something I work at each day. And I’m so much happier for it. Don’t sweat the small stuff, because it really doesn’t matter. If it helps, compare the thing that’s causing you grief with something that would cause you serious grief… perspective is a beautiful thing.
2. Find people who are a light in your life, and hold on to them.
After my brother died, it was as if I put some tinted glasses on and saw the whole world differently. Your priorities change; whenever there is some stupid argument or someone is gossiping about someone else, you just don’t care. People who are self-centered, ditch them. People who make you feel good, hold on to them. Life is too short to be around people who don’t light your fire. Find your tribe, and let them know you appreciate them. I must tell my husband that I love him 10 times a day. Tell your people that they light up your life, and you in turn will light up their day.
3. Do you know what’s even worse than finding yourself somewhere you don’t like? Staying there.
We’ve all ended up in situations where we aren’t happy. Maybe you hate your job, maybe you’re in a bad relationship. Leave it. You have to take control of your happiness, no one else will. I’ve been there, I know it’s scary. Don’t be complacent, don’t spend your time wishing away your tomorrows. Don’t wait for a more convenient moment. Be brave, take a leap. It will all be ok in the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end.
4. Remember that thing you’d love to do someday? Do it now.
I’ve watched my peers really stumble on this. Plagued by ‘what ifs’ and doubts, unable to move forward because they are afraid. We’ve all heard people shouting ‘YOLO’ and chastising our safety-minded heads, and we laugh it away because it isn’t practical. But what my brother’s death has taught me is that you aren’t guaranteed a tomorrow, or another year, much less another fifty. So you have a passion you’d like to pursue but you’re waiting for the perfect time? What if you spend the next ten years doing something that you hate and then die? You don’t want to have wasted your life waiting for the perfect time. There is no perfect time. But there is today, and you can do it now.
5. Shine on, and help others to do the same.
I used to pretend to be stupid so as not to intimidate those around me, not because I’m some kind of genius, but so I didn’t stand out or appear arrogant. That doesn’t serve anyone, and it sure as hell didn’t serve me. What really serves you, is to be the very best version of yourself. And as you liberate yourself you will unconsciously give others permission to do the same. I found this quote a few months after Evan died, and it has changed my life:
6. Don’t do things that make you unhappy.
Sound simple? It’s not really. It takes a lot of concentrated effort to say no to and let go of things that aren’t helpful to you, but your life genuinely is too short not to. This has been my mantra since the day my brother died. And it’s not been easy to follow. I’ve been in shit places doing things I didn’t want to do, and it was easier to stay, but it wasn’t helping me and I was unhappy. So I left. I left a relationship that was damaging my confidence, I left a job that was causing me so many tears. And that was scary. Really scary. But you know what? I’m in such a better place now. If you’re unhappy, something isn’t right. Figure out what it is and get yourself out of there. You owe it to yourself to stop doing things that make you unhappy.
7. Find your thing, and do it.
How often have you been told to simply “Do what you love”? I know, it can sound like a load of hullabaloo. But let me tell you a secret… it’s really not. My friend Matt often says “What’s your tennis ball?” What is the thing that, like a dog chasing a tennis ball for hours on end, gets you excited? What could you pursue for hours and hours on end? Maybe it’s playing the piano, or working with children, or maybe you really love doing DIY, or amateur dramatics. Find your thing and do it, it doesn’t even have to be your job. But if you chase that thing you love, opportunities will follow. They say it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. So do what you love and see where you get to, at least you’ll enjoy it along the way. Make time for yourself to do what you love, one day you’ll be thanking yourself for having done so.
8. Create serendipity for yourself.
We all love those serendipitous moments, when you seem to be in the right place at the right time. It seems like luck, but you can create your own luck. Surround yourself with people who push you to do more, to be better, and who you come alive with. Put yourself out there, do something that scares you every month, you will be astounded by the opportunities you create for yourself. Don’t wait for luck to come along and push you into something exciting, because it may never happen. Go out there and create some serendipity for yourself. The only reason I now have the privilege to work at Escape the City is because I put myself out there. Why not do something today that pushes you out of your comfort zone? You never know what might come of it.
9. Give, give, and give some more.
When I was a kid I frequently heard my parents claim they preferred giving to receiving gifts. I couldn’t believe it, what could be better than getting presents from someone else? But there was something to their logic, and now I get it. Nothing gives me so much pleasure as to see someone else being joyful because of something I’ve done for them. We all have so much to give to others: time, money, knowledge, advice. It’s so easy now to share a little of yourself with those who need it, and it makes life so much fuller. I volunteer for Young Enterprise, helping 16–17 yr olds to learn enterprise skills, and each week I walk away beaming. I’ve also put myself forward to work with St John’s Ambulance service, so that like my brother (a former EMT & Firefighter), I can be a lifeline for those in need. Unconvinced about volunteering? If you don’t want to give to strangers, why not give to people you know who might need a listening ear or a helping hand? It will enrich not only your life, but the lives of those you love.
10. Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Living in an ever-connected world doesn’t help our self-confidence. Never before have we been so acutely aware of the amazing adventures and jobs that our peers are undertaking. FOMO has officially been accepted into the national vocabulary, it’s widely accepted and dampening our chances at being happy with our lot. I have a friend who is off to Colombia for three months on an adventure of a lifetime, I see my peers starting up businesses and taking year-long sabbaticals, and it’s hard not to beat myself up thinking that I’m not being brave enough. Don’t be too hard on yourself, set your own definition of success, it’s personal. Take small steps, they’ll lead you to big brave changes in the direction where you want to be.
11. Remember to be grateful, you’re alive.
We all have so much to be grateful for, no matter what has happened in our lives. I have so much to be grateful for. I feel the pain of my brother’s death so often that sometimes it’s really hard to keep it up, to feel positive and to move forward. But I am grateful for the time we had together as children, I am grateful for the last time I saw him when I gave him a bear hug and told him I loved him 35 times. I am so grateful for that. And I am grateful for my silver lining, for these ten lessons that I have learned in life so far, that have led me to the beautifully complicated and chaotic life I have. We can all find something in our not-so-great times that we can be grateful for… a lesson learned, a new friend, a newfound strength. Don’t forget how powerful that is.
These are lessons I’ve learned from living through the grief of losing someone I loved. I hope that something here resonates with you, because these ten things are guiding me to help me live a better, happier and fuller life. I hope they’ll help you to do the same.
In loving memory of my brother, Evan.