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The stories that trap us and the stories that free us.

Often a young (or youngish) death is considered a tragedy. But what is far more tragic are the choices sometimes made by those left behind.

I heard a very sad story recently. It’s not sad because it’s about a death. It’s sad because someone who didn’t die pretty much forfeited their own life in favour of an impossible fantasy after that death.

A friend was telling me the story of a woman she knows whose husband died over 20 years ago. Let’s call her Julie. Julie was explaining to my friend how very different her life would be now if her husband had still been alive. The adventures she would have had and the responsibilities she wouldn’t have. She painted a picture that was completely different from the life she is living. The travel she would have been doing…that she hasn’t done any of (because he died, otherwise they’d be doing it). The stronger financial position….that she isn’t in (because he died, otherwise she’d be wealthier). The responsibilities she hates….that she hasn’t gotten better at or figured out how to outsource (because if he hadn’t died she wouldn’t have to deal with them).

She has had over 20 years on her own where she could have created what she wanted. She could have accepted that her life had changed. She could have planned the travel, taken her finances in a different direction, worked out how to get better at or get help with the responsibilities she struggled with alone. At the very least she could have done some, or part of these things. But she didn’t do any of them, because instead of dealing with the reality of her life, she had checked out and was focusing instead on the fantasy of life with a man who died over 20 years ago. He and his life have absolutely zip to do with the picture she paints of what could have been. That possibility ceased to exist over 20 years ago. Julie has committed her life to a kind of limbo, and that is where it has stayed.

This is a sad story I see so often. People counting years as if it’s still their age: “He would have been 50 today” or “she would have been 85 today” or “we would’ve been married 20 years today”. None of these things are true. Someone who dies at 30 never becomes 50, and someone who dies at 50 never becomes 70 (except in your imagination, which has nothing to do with them). Stop constantly glancing back and projecting impossibilities forward.

I’m very fortunate that I also get to witness (and participate in) another possible reality. Everybody gets a choice. To pause, hold their breath, and barely move on with their life, living a large number of unfulfilling years and blaming it on a reality that didn’t happen. Like Julie. Or those who embrace what has happened and take hold of their new life, without the same presence of this person, and make the most of it. I have seen such beautiful examples of new beginnings from people who feel like the life they wanted has ended….and decide to start a new version of their life.

You may not like the circumstances you find yourself in (and there is always a way to find a more beautiful story) but I can’t think of much worse than forfeiting your own life for a story that does not and cannot exist. This is the ultimate giving up.

You don’t have to heal your grief completely to be able to step forward like this (though it makes it much easier!). You just have to be willing to see the reality – that your life has changed. That’s what life does. Refusing to accept this won’t change anything. You just have to be willing to acknowledge exactly where you are now – not where you were or where you thought you would be, but where you are. And be brave enough to walk forward from there.

There can be an insidious comfort in staying exactly where you are, but not much happens in that place. Summon up a little courage and make the decision to own the life that you have now. To make the most of this precious life. There is so much beauty and love and adventure to be experienced. It doesn’t matter if this wasn’t the adventure you expected to find yourself on. Here you are. And this is a beautiful place.



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