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What death teaches us about life

Published November 09. 2013 09:00AM

We turn away from every thought of it.

We even go so far as to pretend it doesn't exist. At least we do for as long as we can.

We don't even call it by its real name.

We call it "passing over" or just plain "passing."

But whether its subconscious or not, we try not to say the word died. We try not to think of death.

Until we have to.

Until it sneaks into our life, grabbing someone from us, like a dark monster sucking away anyone who gets too close to the brink.

We know there is such a thing as death.

But we are always shocked when someone dies.

Shock, true shock and disbelief were the emotions that engulfed me when the phone call came.

"I thought you would want to know before you called to make your next appointment. Your buddy Patrick passed away," said his faithful secretary.

Patrick was my medical massage therapist, my fitness coach and most of all, my friend.

He was a "health addict" who got up way before dawn each day to do his stretching exercises. He said if we could do only one good thing each day for our body, we should stretch.

His morning and evening routine also included weights, strength exercises and then aerobic activity.

At 54, he took care of himself better than anyone I know. It was a blood clot in his leg that led to the aneurysm that killed him.

My disbelief when I heard about his death was a denial that death would claim anyone who took care of himself as well as Patrick did.

But we are often shocked when we hear someone we know died. We say things like, "How can that be? I just saw him."

Every time someone I care about passes away, it reminds me once again about our need to cherish life, to make the best possible use of each day.

Those who have had the experience of battling serious illness or of coming close to death often develop a stronger sense of appreciation for each day of life.

When I faced neurosurgery at 44, I vowed then that if I survived, I would make my life count. I would try to make a difference in the lives of those I encounter.

Most of all, I vowed never to waste a day, never to let it slip by while in anger or negativity.

It wasn't like a New Year's resolution that quickly slips away forgotten. For the most part, I have kept my vow.

The fragility of life is something I don't forget. Keeping that thought foremost in my mind influences my actions in diverse ways.

This week, David and I had a rare disagreement. Although I can't even remember now what it was about, I do know he thought he was right and I was sure I was. (Isn't that the way it always is with couples?)

I wanted to sulk away and remain in a silent funk.

I didn't.

Again, it's because the fragility of life remains uppermost in my mind.

I strongly believe if I spend a day in a silent funk, I'm flitting away a precious day of life. We are not guaranteed we will get another day. And if I wasted the day at hand, I can never reclaim it. It's gone forever.

That sober thought always strengthens my vow not to waste one day I am given.

When we lose someone we care about, it's another wake up call about our short lease on life. And when we realize how short life really is, how can we waste a day?

My parish priest talks about death with a different perspective.

Father Jerry's life changed in significant ways because of his close encounter with death.

For ten years, the talented musician was working in Hollywood as a performer and producer.

"Success kept coming and I was rolling in money," he says. "I could buy anything I wanted."

Right in the middle of that success, Jerry was stricken with a serious kind of lymphoma.

As he struggled to live, he says he thought about life and the meaning of it all.

"I vowed that if I lived, I would give more meaning to my life by finally doing something I had always wanted - to become a parish priest."

He did survive and I'll tell you this: His success as a priest tops anything he could have done in Hollywood. He is an extraordinary breath of fresh air, much like Pope Francis.

After five years of being a priest, the cancer came back with a vengeance. This time, nothing could help. He was dying.

Strangely, he calls it "a beautiful time getting ready to go Home."

He believes it's appropriate to refer to death as "passing over" because that's what it is. It's passing over to a new life.

Again, he pulled through and has gone on to help many facing death.

It's in facing death that we learn important lessons about life.

When we lose someone we care about, those lessons hopefully help us never to take for granted one day of the gift of life.

Every death can help us cherish that gift all the more.

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