It was the summer of 1993 when my grandfather died. I had just finished my second year at a private (and very expensive) college and was transferring to a much-less-expensive public university. My brothers and I got the news that he was literally on his deathbed and had only days left to live. If we wanted to make our peace with him and say our goodbyes, we needed to come—and come quick! I was devastated—my grandfather was my world. He was my hero and the only grandfather I’d ever really known and loved. He lived his entire life in Puerto Rico and at the time, I lived near Chattanooga, Tennessee.
I remember being in my dorm room and getting the news . . . losing all feeling in my arms and legs; falling to the floor and dropping the phone on the cement floor . . . hearing the hollow thud reverberate down the concrete block hallway. I felt nauseous and dizzy. My roommate came running down the hall and must have asked me several times what had happened, but I was too stunned and numbed for words. He just sat down next to me—silent. Both of us, helpless.
As a psychology major, I had just completed two courses: Ageing & Society and Developmental Psychology. During parties that first semester, I had wowed my friends—and my dates, mainly—with my knowledge of how the human mind copes with such things . . . what a fool I was. These were all theories—information without wisdom. What I needed was less information and more real-life experience. That summer, I received it in the most disastrous way.
The next day was a frenzy of packing and travelling. I remember meeting up with my younger brother in Atlanta and flying down to Puerto Rico together, but it was like we were a million miles apart—each one drowning in our own grief and loss.
After the brief bedside visit with my weakened and emaciated grandfather and his death and funeral; after all the nice cards, nice food, nice hugs and nice words, there I was again, alone with my grief. But this time, I was both grieving and angry! It was the first and only time in my life that I’d experienced the death of someone special to me. I hope it will be my last . . . but, realistically, it won’t be.
Living through that horrific situation gave me some insights into how not just to survive grief, but how to thrive in the midst of it. Since that time, I have become a counsellor, specialising in community mental health. In that role, I’ve seen my share of people dealing with their own difficult and disastrous situations and have done my best to walk through those with them and help them discover the lessons I’ve learned.
My grandfather’s death devastated me. To be honest, it almost destroyed me. But through that incredibly painful experience I learned six principles that helped me make it through.
- “Life sucks—and then you die!”
Okay, that’s not exactly how I would choose to word it, but I remember seeing this bumper sticker when I was a kid and thinking to myself, Man, that’s really crass and cynical! How would anybody be so jaded? But the reality is, simply: life is tough! Bad things do happen . . . to bad people and to good. And too often nothing we do can keep it from happening. After my grandfather died, my mother told me that he was offered a surgical procedure that would have likely saved his life—but he refused! I don’t know why he did it, but the fact is that he did. I spent a long time trying to make sense of his death, but I just couldn’t.
So principle number one is this: On this side of heaven, bad things will happen. Do your best to understand why, but if you can’t, you have to learn to be okay with not knowing, too.
2. You need to lighten your load; simplify your schedule
After my grandfather’s death, for about two weeks, I just shut down. It was like my body and brain went into some sort of sleep mode. I stopped going to work, interacting with other people, doing the things I loved . . . I just stopped. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me. In fact, being in my early twenties, I thought I was dying! I didn’t understand or recognise that my grief response was very normal—and healthy. Now, more than 20 years later, I can look back on that time and recognise that that moment in my life was like my proverbial “fuse switching off” in order to keep the rest of me from going up in flames.
What I learned from my grandfather’s death was that it’s healthy and helpful to lighten your load; simplify your schedule. For a short and dedicated amount of time, during and/or after a disaster, become a minimalist and sideline everything that’s not absolutely necessary. If people get upset and don’t understand, that’s okay—you’ll explain it to them later. The bottom line is this: they’ll get over it. Better that they be upset for a while than your mental, physical and spiritual health takes a beating that you may not be able to ever get over.
My grandfather’s death temporarily disconnected me from my college friends, who were, at that time, enjoying their idyllic summer holidays. I, on the other hand, was able to begin a life-long love affair with the Old Testament wisdom books (Ecclesiastes, to be exact). This was such a blessing to me and gave me just the right kind of information and, well, wisdom that I needed in order to make it through.
So, principle two: When going through a disaster, learn to be okay with “lightening the load”.
3. Connect with people, not things
It’s a natural thing for people who are going through a disaster to disconnect and unplug for a time. But after that time is done, it’s important to choose to consistently connect with people and relationships and not things and experiences. The truth is that people and relationships are vastly more scary and time-consuming than jumping out of an aeroplane; conversely, people and relationships will bring your life the largest return in terms of joy, happiness and spiritual, emotional and physical wellbeing.
Principle three: Remember to daily value and connect with people and relationships, not things and experiences.
4. It’s ok to ask for help
Remember, when my grandfather died, I was in my early twenties and twenty-somethings often don’t do so well when it comes to asking for help. I realised early on in the process that I was dealing with something I had never experienced and couldn’t understand. I was blessed to have my roommate, my friends and my family. Without them I wouldn’t have made it through. They helped me in very tangible ways, like patiently listening to me rant and rave (for the bazillionth time) about my confusion around the reasons that my grandfather had to die, and telling amazing and silly stories about him.
They also did some very physical and tangible things for me, like making me silly handmade presents and helping me do my laundry when I was so scattered I couldn’t think straight.
Remember principle four: Learn to be okay asking for help.
5. Learn to be thankful
Prior to my grandfather’s death, I wasn’t a very grateful person; in fact, I was quite the opposite. I was very angry and generally a pessimist. In my childhood I had experienced a trauma that left me seeing the proverbial glass as not just half-empty, but bone dry!
But I quickly learned after my grandfather’s death; I began to see the value and wonder in every day of my life. I can’t really give you one specific time that my perspective changed—it just did. I guess that having the brevity of life smack me in the face was like running into a wall at 100 kph—it woke me up. And it woke me up to all the beauty and wonder that life offers us. The beauty of learning to be thankful is that it doesn’t cost you a single cent. In fact, I would say that not being thankful costs you much more in what it takes away from your life and general emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing.
So here’s principle five, in case you missed it: Choose to be thankful daily for the good things in your life.
6. live to serve—serve to live
I could quote a boatload of social science and medical research on the benefits of serving others. But the simple fact is that I’ve actually done it and can personally attest to the fact that it works. Shortly after the death of my grandfather I began to volunteer at a local youth shelter because . . . well, let’s just say that I’d gotten myself into some legal trouble that compelled me to serve others. But when my community service hours were done, something amazing happened: I continued volunteering of my own free will. You see, I’d noticed that on the days I was required at the youth centre, I was happier, kinder and just generally less focused on myself. Since then I’ve proactively chosen to volunteer at my local church. I’m not sharing this to blow my own trumpet, but simply to say that serving others has brought real joy and meaning to my life like nothing else ever could.
So, principle six: Choose to serve daily and to be kind to others.
So there you have it. The six things I learned from the disaster of my grandfather’s death that saved my life—these principles transformed my worldview and my priorities. Since then, of course, I’ve learned a great deal more about life and living—both in and out of disasters, but the six lessons learned during that very difficult and trying time have served me well. I hope that now you know them, you too will begin to practise them daily and pass them on to everybody you know.
Omar Miranda is a healthcare professional, regular writer and proud parent. He lives with his family in Georgia, USA.