Last month I attended two funerals.
The first was for a thirty-year-old young man who had bravely fought illness for 18 months; less than a week later, I attended the second funeral, for a two-year-old baby girl, born already destined for a short life.
All funerals make us think about life and how we spend our hours and days but when young people die before their lives have truly begun, it leaves us with a real sense of how short our time here actually is.
While visiting the mourners of both families during the shiva, I was particularly moved by how each mother addressed her loss. That they would be classified as undeniably strong even if they were curled up sobbing goes without saying. But instead, both mothers seemed almost super-human, acknowledging the time they were granted with their child and feeling comforted by how they had filled each day with love, no matter the actual number of days they had.
In Judaism, we wish each other “arichas yamim”, a lengthening of our days. It generally means we are wishing our friend a long life. It can also mean the literal “lengthening” of a life–a life that was expected to end sooner and was lengthened beyond that time. Yet another interpretation can explain it as a lengthening of each actual day – that each moment of our day be meaningful. At both of these shiva homes, these ideas were expressed over and over again. Even when facing catastrophic illness, every day counted.
The mother who had just lost her beautiful baby girl had the wherewithal to state, “The doctors told us she would live less than a year and we had two. She had her arichas yamim.” Amazing.
The mother of the young man, and really the whole family, was able to say how they filled each of his last days with love and kindness. They were thankful for the gift of being able to say everything they needed to say before the end.
I left both shiva houses inspired. So inspired that I spoke about it with anyone willing to listen. So inspired that my mind was overtaken with thoughts about how I could live such a life – meaningful and full, no matter how many days I am granted.
I came up with some answers and I’m sure you readers can add so many more. I’d love to hear every one of them.
Be Purposeful: I ask myself every day whether what I’m doing is accomplishing anything. Even playing a game or relaxing by the water has purpose if it helps you accomplish your daily tasks. The problem happens when our lives revolve around “doing nothing” or “killing time”, as we used to say in our younger days. Time is a gift and how we use it should mean something.
Be Thoughtful: Lately, I’m much more thoughtful before and after each interaction. Did I say what I wanted to say? Did I hurt someone without realizing? Did I offer enough advice? Too much? I want to leave every conversation, every gathering, better off for my having been there, and that takes thought and care. It’s not always easy, and it doesn’t always work out the way I plan or want, but when it does, boy is that feeling worth all the effort.
Be Personal #1: Remember the last time you visited with an old friend or colleague? Remember the smile that lasted several days, if not weeks? Why do we wait so long before making those plans? Yes, we’re all busy – between housework, career work, homework, and relationship work, who has time for friend work? I think we need to start making time. Once a week, once a month, whatever. And it doesn’t always have to be one friend at a time. For my 40th birthday last year, I invited every single one of my girlfriends to a special evening. They didn’t all know each other but the evening was amazing, nonetheless. So many connections, so much catching up. It takes planning and it takes work, but it’s necessary. Don’t wait until it’s too late and you’re filled with “I should have…”
Be Personal #2: Doesn’t it seem as if we are so careful with how we act in public, and what others think of us, but somehow, when it comes to our nearest and dearest, we let it all go? Why are we not doubly careful with those we love? Make your day count by telling your loved ones how you feel about them, thanking them for everything they do. Be specific: Thank you for going to work every day. Thank you for sharing with your sister. Thank you for not kicking your brother when he ate your snack. I love you.
Be Better: The true road to “lengthening” our days – however we choose to interpret it – is to be better today than we were yesterday. Whom did we help? How did we make the world around us better just because we were in it? Do something every day that gives you the feeling that you are here for a reason and that you are making the most of the time you’ve been given.
It shouldn’t take funerals to make us accept that our days are numbered but often they are the impetus for change. I have learned something from every funeral I’ve attended. Amazingly, the same message resonated at every single one:
Make each day count.
We don’t know how long we’ll be here, but we’re here now.