I was in a good mood as that day started out. It was July 11th, and I was finally able to really use my left arm after shoulder surgery in April. I had just finished doing physical therapy that morning when my phone rang. I saw my sister Sandy’s phone number and answered, but was surprised to hear my brother-in-law’s voice:
Your sister’s dead!
Carolyn died somehow at home just a while ago. We’re on our way there now.
I grabbed my keys and was out the door instantly. All the way there I kept screaming out loud. “NO! NO! What the Hell? NO!” I was the first of our family to get to Carolyn’s house eight miles away. There were police cars and ambulances in the street with their lights flashing, and police officers grouped at the side of the house. As I walked around the house toward them, I saw my sister Carolyn’s body lying next to the bush she had been trimming with hedge clippers. She had electrocuted herself doing yardwork.
That is how quickly it can happen that your loved ones are gone.
Carolyn was the first of my siblings to pass away. Her death has given me a gift in the form of a lesson about how to conduct myself in relation the those whom I love who are still with me here in this physical life. And I want to share this insight because I feel it may help us all in our relationships with those we love.
Shortly after Carolyn’s body was taken away in the coroner’s ambulance that day, I knelt upon the spot where she had died, and I felt her presence still there. The following day, I was again at her house, finishing up the yardwork she had been doing, trying to keep myself distracted from my grief. While doing this work, I unmistakably felt her spiritual energy there again and clearly heard her say to me, with her characteristic sense of humor, “So NOW you come over and do this work for me?!”
In the weeks and months immediately after her passing, Carolyn continued to come to me at times. And often when I felt her presence, I heard that same sense of humor again, but with an additional love-centered message; “Now you are all expressing your love for me – after I’m gone! I want all of you to know that I do feel it and appreciate it. And I love you, too! But I also want you to please learn to express the love you feel for each other – now, before the next one of you dies!”
This is a sentiment that we all feel in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s passing. But it usually fades with time. I’ve experienced the loss of my grandparents and parents, as well as quite a few other family members and a few friends. So I am very familiar with this process. But it has been different for me this time. Having my sister express this message to me herself after her transition has added to it a new dimension and given it deeper meaning. And these have catalyzed me to be extremely observant of my own inner responses as well as the words of others who felt her loss.
I noticed that, after I was beyond the initial shock of losing her, the very first response I had to her passing was to think only of positive things about her. My sister, Carolyn, had a mercurial personality and didn’t shy away from confrontation. In fact she was known for initiating it. But in the aftermath of her passing I didn’t think of those aspects of her. The thoughts that came to me naturally were only of the things I love and will dearly miss about who she was (and still is). And since then, it is only such positive traits that present themselves to my mind when I think about her.
Like all of us, Carolyn had some characteristics that frustrated, disappointed, and even angered those of us who loved her. And I certainly had some memorable disagreements with her myself, as did most of us in our family. But in the time since her passing, those are not the things that have come naturally into my mind. What comes most easily to me when I think of her is her vibrant personality and joy for life, her wonderful sense of humor, her astounding memory of jokes and her delight in telling them, and her perpetually evident desire to make the rest of us happy. And even when stories of her more challenging traits do arise, they have a very different feel to me now. No matter what, I always remember her in the light of my love for her.
The same seems to go for the rest of my family. Something seems to have shifted in how we see her and everything about her. What we naturally think and feel about her now seldom includes the negative stories; it is the positive things about her that arise effortlessly from within us, not the negative ones. And even those, when they do come up, are told with a whole new lightness that wasn’t there before.
In our family gatherings since her passing, there has occasionally been a few retellings of some of her more colorful behaviors that challenged the patience of those of us who experienced them. However, such stories of her negative traits are now recalled without the extreme emotional charge they had previously generated, even in the retelling of them. The negative tone of them is still slightly there, but so diminished as to be negligible.
In addition, whenever one of us does revisit a negative story about her, it feels to me like some effort is required to go there. Like the telling of those things requires us to go against the natural flow of something palpable. I believe that “something” is our love for her which, now that we are allowing it to predominate, moves us to recall only the good things we truly feel about her and know her to be. Herein lies the lesson.
What all of this says to me is that our natural way of viewing one another is with love and appreciation, which we immediately revert to when a loved one passes out of our life. To love one another is our default state of being, the place we naturally settle to when all outside forces are removed. When we are in the midst of our interactions with each other, we tend to forget this and notice far too often only the things about our loved ones that we are dissatisfied with. But when those dear ones are suddenly gone, our judgments immediately fall away and we return to our innate and effortless state of only loving them.
Since it is our default to focus upon positive thoughts of those we love, as demonstrated each time another loved one dies and we stop overriding our natural tendency to love, we should live that way toward each other now, in the present. This is the lesson Carolyn would have us learn from her passing – to focus upon the positive things about each other, to the exclusion of the negative things as much as possible – to NOT wait until our loved ones physically pass away, before we treat them with the love we naturally feel for them.
Don’t wait until after another loved one dies to start focusing upon the things you cherish about the people you love. Express to them now the love you feel for them … before another is suddenly gone and you can celebrate your love for her or him only with those who remain living with you afterwards, regretting that you hadn’t let her or him know – directly from you – just how much you loved him/her.