Creating light at the end of the tunnel
As I write, something unusual is happening in my life. Two of my close friends from different families have grandparents who are expected to die within the next few weeks. The grandparents lived their lives very differently from one another. The decisions they made about how to live, and the way they are experiencing their final days, offers a deep perspective on how we can all live to the best of our ability.
Simon raised three daughters with his wife, whom he outlived. His daughters stayed close to him throughout his entire life. There was mutual affection between Simon and his grandchildren. Simon found joy in them and was grateful for their calls and attention. He valued human connection and worked to be the best man he could.
As Simon’s life comes to a close, he’s made it clear that he’ll miss his family and that he loves them very much. He is, by his own account, ready to die and basically unafraid. His family has cherished these final warm moments with Simon. They have told him what he meant to them, and how he impacted their lives. Simon’s family – while of course incredibly sad – feels grateful to have spent time on earth with him.
Marcy’s life is more complicated. When my friend, Marcy’s granddaughter, recently drove five hours to visit, Marcy criticized her wardrobe. My friend offered to assemble photos of the whole family in a digital picture frame for Marcy. Upon hearing about this plan, Marcy told her granddaughter not to waste her time, and that she would prefer to have a small piece of costume jewelry. Another time, Marcy lied about having no food and no way of getting groceries so that her daughter would drive many hours to come visit. Marcy is currently estranged from her son.
As Marcy’s life comes to a close, she feels terrified. She’s made it clear that she is not ready to die. Her family remains conflicted. They don’t want Marcy to die, but they have spent so much time being criticized, hurt, and manipulated by Marcy that they struggle to fully love her. Because Marcy spent most of her life closed off and failing to repair broken relationships, she struggles to find the ability to express the love and warmth she wants her family to feel before she passes on. Everyone involved with Marcy’s passing feels torn. They want to feel warm, present, and loving, but accessing those feelings is a struggle.
Observing my friends, their families, and their grandparents has taught me something valuable
Being a cold or warm person is rarely determined by one or two grand gestures. Instead, it’s the result of a series of small decisions made each day. To smile or to scowl. To compliment or critique. To express appreciation or to keep quiet. To be playful or serious. To focus on the light or the darkness.
No matter what, our lives will end. While we are alive we won’t be able to control much. In fact, the only things that we can control are our actions, and to a certain degree, our thoughts.
If we consistently use our actions and thoughts for anything less than warmth, if we always put our needs above others’, if we lose sight of the big picture and withhold love, we will have wasted our lives. As they end we will feel fear and regret. The people we leave behind will struggle to comfort us because we were never as warm towards them as they wanted us to be.
On the other hand, if we use our actions and thoughts to spread warmth and love and light, if we keep sight of the big picture and invest in the success and happiness of those around us, we will have lived beautiful lives. As our life ends, we will feel the regret of the ride ending, but will be able to confidently move towards the next step. With a little bit of luck, we’ll be surrounded by people who we loved who lived better lives because of their relationship with us.
What I’ve learned from observing Marcy, Simon, and their families:
At times letting the love and light shine through can be incredibly difficult. More often than we care to admit, the good thing to do is also the hard thing to do. It can be easier in the moment to make the selfish or cold choice. And yet, if you do that hard work of becoming a source of warmth and love, at the end of the tunnel, you will be rewarded.
Note: out of respect and privacy I have changed the names and avoided the identifying details of people in this story.