I consider myself fortunate… since losing my paternal grandmother at the age of seventeen, it wasn’t until my third decade of life that I experienced another loss of a loved one. Then this past May, my grandparents passed away within two weeks of each other. My grandfather succumbed to complications from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a condition that slowly and stealthily disintegrated his ability to breathe on his own. As for my grandmother, her death certificate reads “respiratory arrest”, but we like to think that she died of a broken heart. For the past several months, this loss has cast me into a revolving state of sadness, curiosity, introspection, and personal growth.
Although they passed away in late-Spring, we waited until July to have the burial so that extended family members could be present. It was strange to lose them, to celebrate each of their lives with a wake, to spend two months adjusting to life without them… and then to bury them in July. The burial was the last symbolic representation of their departure from our lives, and its occasion found me trying to tie up the loose ends of my thoughts about them and my experiences with them.
Long before I lost them, as my grandparents were getting more fragile by the week, I often thought about how they impacted the lives of the people around them. I could identify family patterns and see how some of my decisions were results of my great-grandmother’s childhood. My grandfather taught me that a person’s warm and enduring presence can sometimes be more valuable than the most carefully chosen words, and my grandmother unknowingly showed me that there is a difference between surviving and thriving. She helped me come to the realization that we all deserve more than to simply survive. As I watched my uncle shovel soil on top of my grandparents’ urn, I began to understand with more clarity the way that their experiences and their presence had shaped my family.
The cemetery setting itself prompted further contemplation… Who thinks of the people beneath my feet? When your journey has come to an end, and everyone who ever knew you has also passed on, what is important then? Does anyone know if you were rich or if you had a beautiful wife or a fancy car? Do they know how many beach vacations you took or who you voted for? Probably not. At the end of someone’s life, the thing that truly keeps us connected to them is our memories and the subtle ways they shaped us. Not their possessions, not their bank accounts, not even their accomplishments – only our memories.
The experiences of the last several months have led me to narrow down the most important things to do with my time on this Earth, and this is what became apparent to me… It’s important to inspire other people, whether they realize it or not, to be better. By “better,” I mean kinder, more understanding, and more compassionate -particularly with people you don’t necessarily agree with or relate to. I am now renewing my commitment to choose kindness instead of criticism, to offer support instead of judging, and to help foster connections among people instead of allowing divisions to form. I’m claiming kindness by trying to be a better person in the hopes that the people around me, especially children, will learn from example – the example set generations before them.
Kindness is impotent without action. Not being mean is not the same as being kind. In both my classroom and my home, I can model this and help to groom carriers of kindness. To, through my actions, remind those around me of the power of peace and love is the legacy I can leave. If I honor my commitment to kindness, I believe I can offer the same subtly uplifting influence on others that my grandparents have offered to me.