Finding Meaning in Sudden Death

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A few months ago, I lost my mom to suicide.

A few years ago, I lost my mentor to cardiac arrest. A decade ago, I lost my dog to cancer.

Three times, my pillars of strength were stolen from me in an instant. And in each case, I witnessed their last breaths. These sudden deaths came with immense levels of pain. I felt like the world had stabbed me a 1,000 times and buried me 100 feet under the soil. Life felt unfair. But I knew that I had to somehow find my way out and move forward.

The recent loss of my mom has forced me to tackle this challenge once again. It’s been the closest and most painful of all the losses. I was very close to my mom. Growing up, it was just me and her. My dad was never in the picture. Although my mom and I never had much, we endured many obstacles together and made life work. All she wanted in life was to live close to the beach and work in a surf shack. I was pretty close to being able to provide that reality for her. But depression, the failures of modern medicine, and her choice to leave this world took that dream away.

It’s been a very personal and painful loss. It’s something that’s on my mind every day. On my journey to understand this sudden loss and move forward, I’ve learned that you cannot run from your suffering. As painful as it might be, you have to look it in the face, sit with it, and let it run its course. You need to be present with it. If you bury it, it will eventually bury you.

But being present with your suffering doesn’t mean that it has to cripple you. You just need to find meaning in the suffering. Viktor Frankl discussed this concept in Man’s Search for Meaning: “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” Frankl came to this conclusion after enduring the most unimaginable of realities. He spent years in Nazi concentration camps, suffering from extreme hunger, brutality, and cold. His wife, mother, father, and brother died in the camps. He emerged alive and well from this experience because he found meaning in his suffering. I think Frankl is right.

Through my three experiences with sudden loss, the most effective healer of wounds has been finding meaning in the loss through reflection and writing. When I lost my dog, I wrote a letter about the experience and our time together. When I lost my mentor, I wrote about our time together and how he taught me to pay it forward When I lost my mom, I wrote a eulogy that reminded me of how her belief, authenticity, and compassion will always stick with me. I also wrote about what I learned from unpacking a storage unit with all of my childhood possessions.

And when people suffering deeply and ready to leave this world have reached out to me in the last few months, I have been able to communicate with them from the perspective of someone who has a very personal and deep connection to the struggle. You can find meaning in suffering in many different ways, but writing has been my medium of choice.

It certainly doesn’t solve everything. It doesn’t take away what happened or stop the thoughts and emotions. But it helps. One inch at a time, I’m working my way back to the surface. There’s a long journey ahead. I know that finding and sharing meaning in that struggle is the path to victory.

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