A Lesson From Grief
What kind of a bridge are you building for those who follow?
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It was night when I arrived, but even in the darkness I recognized the house—as if I had been there before. I knew I was in the right place when I caught a glimpse of Stephanie and a couple other folks coming out of the house. I didn’t want her to see me just yet—in case there was a reason she had stayed away for eleven years—so I hid inside a nearby van, crouching down in the backseat. Of course, with my luck, Stephanie and her friends got into the van too! Thankfully they stayed up front and didn’t see me in the back.
I could clearly hear what they were talking about. They were talking about me! Stephanie told her friends that she loves me, and that she knows how much I loved her, but she’s surprised I didn’t come looking for her when she left. Hearing this, I decided it was time to speak up.
“They told me you were dead.” Everyone was startled when they heard my voice, but when Stephanie turned and saw me she smiled the smile I’d always remembered. “They even had a body to show me at your funeral!”
“That’s not how it works,” she said. “Yeah, it was my body, but it wasn’t me. I just went somewhere else. I’m still around; there’s lots of work to do here.”
“I’m happy to know you’re still around,” I said. Then I leaned in. She leaned in too. Then for the first time in eleven years our lips embraced. Everything came back! All at once! The sensation was such a shock to my Being that I instantly woke up.
It was still early so I turned over and tried to fall back asleep to be with Stephanie again. It had been a long and fast eleven years, and even though it was just a dream I wanted to live in the fantasy again, even if only for a little while. But I couldn’t sleep, because I didn’t really want it. Now that I’m awake (now that my eyes and heart are opened) they won’t be shut. Knowing what I now know (knowing again, remembering what I knew, re-cognizing the Truth) I don’t want to fall asleep again. We have lots of work to do, work that we couldn’t do before.
Lessons From Grief
I don’t talk much anymore about my experience with grief in the years following Stephanie’s sudden and unexpected death just a week after we became engaged to be married. This is partially because I’ve talked and written and thought and lived it enough that I’m ready for a new story, but certainly it’s also because the pain is now gone. To be sure, I still think about her every day—not a day goes by that the thought of her doesn’t cross my mind—yet time has been a good medicine.
What also helped the healing process was an important question that began ruminating in my mind about eight years ago. What if the roles were reversed? What if I had died instead? What would she say about me? What would anyone say about me? This lead to a similar yet profoundly different question: What if I died today? What legacy would my actions while I was here leave behind?
In the early years since Stephanie’s passing I didn’t handle grief very well. I had become a person that I didn’t recognize, doing things that my former self would never have dreamed of doing. But this question of legacy began reframing my attitude and approach towards life, and this new approach forced me to take a critical look at my actions.
Thomas J. Watson, IBM’s first CEO (and the namesake of the company’s question and answer machine) once said:
“Nothing so conclusively proves a man’s ability to lead others as what he does from day to day to lead himself.”
Put another way: Can we do the right thing even when doing the wrong thing would be far easier?
What’s Your Legacy?
If we could spend a day together to talk about your passions—your natural talents, learned skills, and causes that stir your spirit—with only one day we’d only be able to scratch the surface of what it can take to develop and foster our capacity for self-leadership. It’s for this reason that I suggest here just one big idea, because keeping this one idea in mind as we grow through life will enable us to make the really tough decisions when they come, while at the same time making the rest of life simply more enjoyable.
The big idea is this: At the end of your life people will summarize your life in one sentence. Pick it now. Choose the legacy you want to leave others and then live today and every day in such a way that your influence continues to positively impact others even long after you’re gone.
One of my mentor’s, John C. Maxwell, puts it another way. He asks:
“What kind of a bridge are you building for those who follow?”
Answering this question gives clarity and vision not only with our day-to-day decision-making, but also with our legacy, which decides our legacy for us, because deciding on the bridge that we build is a decision that’s fully within our control. We may not get to pick when or how we’re going to die, but we do get to choose how we live.
So, how about it? What do you want your legacy to be? Why is this important to you? If you don’t know what you want your legacy to be, then perhaps a good question to get you started is this: What will your legacy be if you died today? If you don’t like the answer to this pointed question, what will it take to change that?
As we grow through life our thoughts about our legacy will often change, continually refining and becoming ever clearer as we move forward. Whatever you decide, as you continue to move forward I encourage you to keep this question in mind:
“What will it take for you to ensure that your legacy comes to pass?”
As for me, I'm going to continue leaning in.
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Jonas Cain, M.Ed. is a storyteller, magician, musician, and facilitator of fascination on a mission to help you experience abiding joy.