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Using Death as a Motivator

Misty Graveyard

Death is a normal and natural part of life. While we don’t like to think about it often, death is something that each one of us must deal with many times throughout our life. The thought of someone close to us suddenly disappearing from our lives can be crippling. While it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with, hopefully, for most of us, those that we lose will be those are in a better place because they’re no longer suffering from a medical ailment and it will be something that we’re expecting and have had an opportunity to plan for. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes we lose people unexpectedly.

While sharing a very personal story about losing a friend unexpectedly, Dan Perez asked:

“What if someone you cared for wasn’t going to wake up tomorrow morning and neither one of you knew it?”

This question alone, never mind the actual story Dan shared, made me flash back to losing my parents.

Finding Out by Reading An Obituary

When I was in middle school my parents divorced. Since it was my step-father who I had grown up with since my earliest memories, I lived with my mom after the divorce. I continued to have a great relationship with my dad and we hung out often.

Following the divorce, my dad remarried and unfortunately his new wife wasn’t so understanding of our relationship, mostly because he was “just” my step-father so after the divorce, he, technically, had no legal ties to me any longer. My dad and his new wife had a child together and this further drove a wedge between my father and I because of marital pressures to spend time with his “real” son.

A couple years had gone by and my father and I had barely talked due to these pressures. Then, one day in October, during my senior year in high school, my mother opened up the local newspaper and as she was flipping through the obituary section, she saw my father’s photo. My dad had passed away from cancer.

I never had a chance to say goodbye.

Saying “I Love You” One Last Time

We’ve all heard that you should always say “I love you” to our loved ones before saying goodbye, whether on the phone, in-person, or virtually. The thought goes that if you were to lose that person, your last words would be “I love you.”

While growing up my mother always suffered from an aggressive form of Lupus. Once my parents divorced it put all of the weight of dealing with my mom’s disease on me. Since my mom couldn’t work and was on disability, it meant that I had to work at a very young age just to support our household. It didn’t always work out and, unfortunately, I know what it’s like to be evicted with a sheriff standing at your door; living in a shelter; and visiting food pantries just to have some powdered milk.

Coming into my junior and senior years of high school my mother had been progressively more sick and was bed-ridden most of the time. No one knew how bad it was though.

On a sunny day in March of my senior year of high school, I was getting ready to leave my house to go hang out with a few friends. My mom and I hadn’t been getting along that well lately because I wanted the freedom that my friends had and, in some ways, regretted having to give up my life to support my mom. I walked out of my house, slamming the front door and there was some unsavory language exchanged between us.

While waiting outside for my friend to arrive, I paused, remembered that my mom and I had made a pact to always say “I love you” before leaving each other, and felt sad that we hadn’t had that last exchange. I walked back inside, said I was sorry and we each said “I love you” before my friend arrived and I headed out for the day.

Those were the last words I ever said to my mom. While I was out that day, her body shut down one organ at a time putting pressure on her heart and she died from a heart attack. I would later find her dead in her bed. She had passed away just five months after losing my dad.

Always Looking Over My Shoulder

It is hard losing someone close to you at any point in your life but losing both of your parents while your in high school can be devastating. It can lead you down dark and lonely paths. You have to make a decision in your life to either head down a path of destruction or to the experience as a driver and motivator to do better in life.

I decided that a path of destruction didn’t sound like much fun and that, instead, I would stand tall and fight through it.

Prior to my mother passing away, she had tried to prep me for it. Besides the many life lessons she tried teaching me, she told me that she would always look over my shoulder. Once I left for college, during my first semester, I got a tattoo on my right shoulder/back area of a blue rose (my mother’s favorite flower) with angel wings, clouds and my mom’s death date. This was my way of ensuring that my mother would always look over my shoulder and help guide me through life.

How That Experience Has Changed Me

From that point forward I have run as hard and as fast as possible for the rest of my life running through any wall that ever presented itself to me. Some have told me that it’s as if I have something to prove. For me, it’s that I never want to feel as though I have disappointed my parents. It is what drives me every day.

Besides deciding to juggle as many plates in the air as humanly possible at all times, the experience of losing my parents changed me in more ways than I can ever express. I’m sure that it has changed me in many ways that I won’t know until I have children, too.

But, what I do know is that it has caused me to appreciate life, live it to its fullest, and also to never end a conversation with a loved one, especially my wife, without saying “I love you.”

Thanks, Dan, for the motivation to write this post. It’s been a long time coming and an experience that I have hinted about and touched on lightly in previous posts but never dived into fully.

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Photo Credit: hugovk

  • Anonymous

    What an incredibly heartbreaking, but inspirational story. It’s understandable that tragedy like that leads many people on a destructive and debilitating path, so it’s really encouraging to hear how it made you a stronger and more determined person. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    Rachel Kay

  • Anonymous

    Wow, I would have never thought my modest post would have had such an affect on people like it has had. I labored for months on whether I should even write it at all but my wife finally convinced me to go ahead and write the post. It took several weeks to finish but I’m glad I did.

    What a story you have here. It’s great to read how such a tragedy can be a source of inspiration because it can also lead to self-destruction and ruin. Losing a loved one is tough, I just lost my mother-in-law this very weekend. I will be flying out tonight to attend her funeral tomorrow. Like you said earlier, “Death is a normal and natural part of life.” Very true. I lost my father to a sudden heart attack when he was only 50. My wife has had her second kidney transplant and major heart surgery in the 13 years we’ve been married. Life can be a fragile thing and isn’t guaranteed to anyone, yes?

    We’ve gotta hope we get more sunny days than rainy ones and I’ve been fortunate to have more good than bad. I’ve also come to appreciate the time we spend with our loved ones so that, when their time comes, I can feel good knowing I was one of the sunny days in their life.

    Justin, thanks for this, means a lot to me.

    Death plucks my ear and says, “Live – I am coming.” ~Virgil

  • geekbabe

    I gasped aloud while reading this & had to wait a bit so I could collect my emotions before responding, what a powerfully moving post! You’ve really driven home the power of positive coping skills in the wake of great tragedy. Thank you for sharing your story with us,I feel enriched for having read it.

  • justinlevy

    Thank you for taking the time to read the story and find the underlying
    themes through it. It definitely isn’t always easy, especially during the
    first few years of not having them around, but that doesn’t have to be

  • justinlevy

    I’m really glad that you did decide to write the piece because not only was
    a powerful read but it also helped inspire this post. I definitely agree
    that we have to appreciate the moments that we have with our loved ones and
    friends because we never know when they could be suddenly taken away from
    us, even if it’s not due to death.

    I’m sorry to hear about the recent tragedies that you’ve experienced.

  • justinlevy

    Thank you so much for the kind words! It means a lot that others can take
    something positive out of my experiences and use them in their lives. I
    appreciate you taking the time to read through the story and jot down some

  • Janna

    Wow. I think this is one of the most important posts you could have ever written. It explains the core of who you are and why you do what you do.

    I lost my father to a heart attack when I was 11, but my mom was a survivor and taught me to be the same. Tragedy can be turned to triumph. Both your parents would be so proud of the person you have become.

  • justinlevy

    I’m sorry to hear about your loss and agree that tragedy can be turned into

    It was great meeting you at BlogWorld!

  • Lauren D

    You summarized the struggles one faces when losing a parent so perfectly. I have struggled for years to try and explain exactly as you did, to people who don’t understand, the lasting affect my mother’s death had on me, due to cancer. It changes you. Thanks Justin for sharing, had I known back in college when we were RAs together that we were dealing with the same issues it would of helped me tremendously cope with my mother’s loss, as well as, the anger I felt with having to take care of my mother as she fought MS. I wish I had known this about you ten years ago.
    -Lauren D

  • kathryn jennex

    Dear Justin – don’t forget to take time to mourn and heal. You are a good person. All of your parents must have been so proud.

  • Aaron Lee

    This is my first time reading your personal post, thanks for sharing this post and it must be tough for you to remember back everything and writing this.

    When I was 14, my brother had brain tumor too, I was very bad back then, I go out till late at night and I just wanted my freedom, my brother was in his recovery so I didn’t worry about anything, me and my brother was close. We shared everything. Yet.. i didn’t spend much time with him… Then one day February 14, my dad called and told me he passed away from an infection… and every Valentines day it brought me back to that day. I didnt get a chance to talk to my brother till he passed away and I regretted every moment of it.

  • Tobey Deys

    Thank you for sharing such a personal part of yourself, Justin. I hear other parents talk to their children on the phone … just typical parent/kid chitchat. They say goodbye and hang up. I’m always a bit taken aback – they didn’t say ‘I love you’ (or ‘love you, too’). I didn’t hear those words a lot as a kid ~ but they are exchanged by me, and my children, and those I love everyday, often. I often wonder why so many are so frightened of those three little words.
    I had a dear friend who was suffering more than anyone knew. He came to visit me on a Sunday afternoon and we sat on my porch laughing and talking in the sun. When he was on his way, he looked at me, smiled, and said ‘I love you’. I laughed and said, ‘well yeah, me too!’. The next morning, dropping by with coffee, I learned that in the night he had committed suicide. As painful as it still is, I think how kind he was to tell me one last time.
    Keep saying those words – in upper case and in lower case. Show those words to everyone whose lives you touch – and it will come back to you an hundredfold.
    Again, Justin, thank you for your generous reminder.

  • Tobey Deys

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Aaron. We can’t know what the future holds nor blame ourselves for its events. My heart goes out to you and sends you peace.

  • drmani

    Touched. Deeply. Thanks for sharing this, Justin.

  • Carrie Tucker

    Aloha Justin,

    I think juggling multiple plates at one time is a survival mechanism.

    When you have your own kids you will be nurtured in a peace that defies understanding.

    God is good.

    Many blessings,

  • Dennis Yu

    Wow– this is deep. We should all be so lucky to find someone looking over our shoulders.