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Lessons I've learned from the dead

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By Carolyn Risner

My father and I were constantly at odds. I can't remember how or when it started, but I do remember thinking that he was the meanest, most unfair man alive.

That changed right after I left high school as I started learning more about him as a man, and not just my daddy.

By the time I moved to Georgia, we had a solid relationship-an unspoken one of mutual respect and trust.

He wasn't into sentiment, and I wasn't about to broach my feelings of admiration for him. I thought I had years to tell him how much he meant to me, and how I finally understood the man he was.

And then he was dead. He collapsed mowing the grass a week past his 62nd birthday.

It was that rude awakening that taught me one of my first life lessons.

Lesson One: Never let an opportunity go by to tell someone how much they mean to you, or how they impacted your life.

In the 15 years since my father's death, I have sent innumerable cards and e-mails to people who cross my mind while driving, or in those last few minutes before sleep comes.

I make sure to tell people how much they mean to me when I see them, and if I love them, I let them know. There's no assurance of tomorrow, so take care of business today.

My mother was a born-worrier. She always put the feelings of others ahead of her own, and sometimes at great personal sacrifice. We affectionately called her the martyr.

She anticipated each tomorrow, and planned accordingly.

When she died in 2001 after a long illness, there was no question as how to handle her funeral.

For tucked away in a compartment in her wallet, was a handwritten note detailing her wishes from the ministers to the songs.

All I had to do was choose her burial outfit. And that was about all I could handle at that time.

Lesson Two: Everyone should write what kind of final arrangements they want to be carried out. It takes the guess work out of an already emotional time.

By the time I lost my friend Ken in 2005, I was sure that the lessons learned from my parents were enough to see my family through my death and burial.

I was wrong.

Ken lived alone-all his family was in New Jersey and he hadn't seen his daughter in 19 years.

When it came time to make arrangements, I was there with his daughter as we tried to sift through 57 years of memorabilia just to determine if he had any assets-especially life insurance.

Shortly after his death, I went on a cleaning binge and eliminated about a third of my sentimental junk. Three years later, I'm still sifting through memorabilia.

At the same time, I put all my financial information in one place: bank statements, insurance policies, 401(k) information.

Lessons Three and Four: Put your important papers in a single location and tell someone where those items are. Eliminate sentimental clutter from your life that will have no meaning for your heirs. Really, do your children want the frozen dead roses from your high school prom that were given to you by someone other than their father?

Last week, we memorialized our friend Claude. Nearly everyone who came to the visitation, the funeral and the wake spoke of Claude's unwillingness to conform to society's standards. He was who he was, and nothing changed that.

Claude was himself and in return, he accepted people for who they are and never tried to change them to fit into anyone's idea of "proper, traditional or conventional."

Too often we try to live up to someone else's standards and in doing so, we lose a vital part of who we are.

To thine ownself be true. Immortal words that have survived the ages, and yet so few of us practice them.

Lesson Five: To find true happiness, you must first love yourself and then you can love others-for who they are.

Five simple lessons. Four people who reached beyond the grave to impart wisdom and self discovery.

Imagine what we could learn from the living, if only we'd take the time.

Carolyn Risner is the editor of the Chiefland Citizen. She may reached at editor@chieflandcitizen.com or by calling 493-4796.