As news broke yesterday about the tragic death of basketball star Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others, my newsfeed filled with messages of shock and sadness. These posts contained some version of “Tell someone you love them.” and “Hug your kids tonight.” When a public figure like Bryant dies unexpectedly it reminds us how fragile life is. But this harsh reality is something we generally don’t want to face, and we push it aside to think about another day. Denial about our own mortality not only keeps us from prioritizing the important things, it prevents us from preparing for our own passing. Isn’t it crazy that we spend most of our lives pretending like the one guaranteed fact of life doesn’t exist?
My first “real” job after grad school was working at a hospital. I was a research coordinator for a neurologist, and most of the clinical trials we worked on were studying treatments for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). ALS is a motor neuron disease that affects the ability to walk, use one’s hands, speak, swallow, and breathe. Survival is only 2-4 years after onset. I held this job for about two and a half years, so in that time I saw many patients progress through this brutal disease. At the same time, I was also dealing with my father’s fight with brain cancer, and he died during my employment there. For several years in my 20s, I was surrounded by death.
I look back at those years and I’m glad they are behind me. But I am also grateful for that time because it taught me some of my most valuable lessons. I learned that death is a part of life. I learned that until you die you are still living, and even if you are sick there are moments of joy to be had. I learned that death brings the important things into sharp focus. People who know they only have a few years to live don’t waste their time on the petty annoyances most of us worry about every day.
In the wake of the loss of a man who was a hero to many, I hope we can open up the conversation and demystify dying a little bit. I know this is a dark topic and one that most of us would rather not think about, much less talk about! But it’s important, at the very least, to discuss with our loved ones the practicalities of our final wishes, how we want to be memorialized, and what happens to the stuff we will leave behind.
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