I don’t know about you, but I’m sad today. 

Six friends of mine died this past year, including a young neighbor across the street. Two other friends lost teen sons to suicide. Our family’s beloved optometrist was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). My 15-year-old son Aaron battled cancer (thankfully, that story is going well so far). 

And, of the aforementioned deaths, four of them occurred this month. 

Add to this numerous other challenges and obstacles, many of which were painful and confusing, and I have to say that this year has been a tough one. 

Here’s what I’ve learned. It seems I glean the same lessons, over and over again.

Life is about relationships. 

We come out of the womb needy, dependent, and looking to attach. We’re designed to connect – to love and be loved. Our lasting joys and regrets revolve around people.

Life is full of surprises, and not all of them are pleasant.

Life is a bit like a never-ceasing, unpredictable roller-coaster. It can be fun, thrilling, terrifying, and even dangerous. I get surprised often. Almost nothing works out according to my plans. 

Death and loss don’t discriminate based on gender, race, age, income, or education.

Death is the great equalizer. When it knocks, all wedges that have been driven between us disappear. Categories and stereotypes become meaningless.

As wise King Solomon said over 3000 years ago, “Death is the destiny of every man, and the living should take this to heart.”

Loss can be stunning, devastating, and traumatic. 

I’m amazed at the human heart. Love can run so deep. It can crash through every barrier and endure unbelievable suffering. For hearts wired for connection, separation can be crushing. 

Anything can happen to anyone at any time. 

No one is immune from illness, tragedy, or suffering. We wonder what’s next. We wait for the other shoe to drop. If we’re not careful, we can go internal and start existing in fortress mode. Out of fear, we can cease to really live. 

None of us are superhuman.

We are all vulnerable. Our hearts are resilient but are also regularly under assault. Our pain is not merely physical, but mental, emotional, and spiritual as well. 

We need each other desperately. 

I’m not in control of what happens to me or to those I care about.

I have influence, yes. Control? No.

All I seem to be in control of are the thoughts I let take up residence in my mind and the resulting words and actions that flow from them.

The battlefield for overcoming pain and loss with gratitude and goodness is my mind. How I see, interpret, and think about things is huge.

How I respond to what happens matters – for myself and those around me.

How I deal with the unwanted surprises of life is important. When rocked by loss or uncertainty, I need to breathe deeply and return to the things I know are true.

I remember the words of my college mentor: “It’s not what happened, but how you interpret and respond to what happened that matters now.”

How I respond to life and loss matters more than I realize.  

Life is about showing up, listening, and loving as best I can.

I control almost nothing, yet I can make a difference.

I can show up. I can set aside my agenda and listen – and then listen some more. I can enter another’s world, even if only for moment, and love them there. 

No matter what, I can still love. I can choose to meet life’s challenges with kindness, compassion, and forgiveness (toward both myself and others). I can grieve deeply and authentically, and still serve.

I don’t know what you learned in 2018, but chances are some of the above resonates with you. You can relate. If pain and grief have been major for you this year, please know that healing is possible.

I’m glad we’re in this together.