This is probably something we all reflect on from time to time. Big questions like why we are here, for how long we are here, and what we are supposed to do while we are here. When your life is turned upside down by the loss of a loved one, these questions become even more relevant than ever before.
In continuation of what is the meaning of life, you may also ask yourself what constitutes a good and meaningful life. I used to think that this must necessarily be measured quantitatively – meaning that long life was the equivalent of a good life. I grew up quite biased about this viewpoint having attended several 90th birthday parties on both sides of the family. Before my best friend passed away in a tragic accident I never had to say goodbye to anyone under 80 years old. Death was something that happened naturally at the end of life, never something that would put a premature end to a young life.
For the past months, I have struggled, and still have a hard time, trying to make any sense of this accident. My friend was only 27. He was young and healthy. He had his whole life in front of him. He wanted to find a steady job. He wanted to travel the world. He wanted to become rich and successful. He had so many dreams. At the same time, he was painfully aware of life’s fleeting nature. He would sometimes use the phrase 인생무상 which means something along the lines of life being fragile and uncertain. Oh, how right he was. I never realized it when he first said those words. He would also sometimes declare in his cute English that “time is super flying” alluding not-so-subtly to the fast pace of time passing us by.
I guess that in the big picture life is short no matter if you live to be only 27 or even 97. We are all here for such an incredibly short time that what matters most is how you spend the days you’re given on this planet and not how many days you get. This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn. That life can be brutally short, but that the end does not determine the value or meaning of the life that came before it. However short it may have been.
In speaking with his friends and his close family I have reached the conclusion that while my friend may not have lived a full life, he did live a rich and meaningful life. For one thing, he turned my life upside down and made sure I would be able to adapt easily to my life in Korea. He was the most dedicated Korean teacher and (tor)mentor I could have ever asked for. He also became my best friend and supporter, my trusted confidant and fellow trouble-maker and partner-in-crime. He had the privilege of living abroad when he spent a semester in Denmark, and he did get to travel all over Europe – at one time leaving me to plead over the phone with one of his professors at my university not to fail him for being absent due to the very important quest of touring the bars of Amsterdam (I gave a slightly censored version of the nature of his trip to the professor). He also used to travel somewhere in Asia with some of his buddies every summer.
When I recently had lunch with his mother, she emphasized how lucky he was that he had had all these opportunities to travel and experience so many wonderful things. She also told me that growing up he was always the teachers’ favorite and that all of her friends found him extremely cute. None of this surprised me. He had a way of just marching into people’s hearts and captivate everyone around him. I distinctly remember our goodbye dinner in Denmark in December 2015, just before he had to go back to Korea. Two ladies in their 40s sitting at the next table kept looking at us, clearly assuming that we were dating, when finally one of them turned to me and asked what language we were speaking in and if I would kindly tell my ‘boyfriend’ in said language that they thought he was very handsome. This attention obviously made his day. In fact, a year later when I met his brother for the first time, one of the first things his brother asked me was: “Okay, I need to know something here. Ever since my brother came back from Denmark he’s been bragging about how popular he was among the ladies over there. Is that true?” I confirmed this struggling to keep a straight face, but inside I was almost bursting with laughter. This was so much like him. It’s always better to exaggerate a story than to tell one that’s true but not nearly half as interesting.
He was just so loved by so many people. He made wonderful friends, he visited many places, he achieved so many of his goals (one of them was to make me sound like a Korean), and he learned so many things including speaking English and even a bit of Danish.
He once told me that he would wish that I would stay in Korea forever so that we could grow old together. I would want nothing more, but you can’t have it all. Whenever I’m consumed by grief, which is still really often, I try to cultivate a sense of gratitude. I allow myself to break down and sob for as long as I need and then I make myself think of all the reasons why I’m just so extremely thankful that he came into my life even for just a short while. I would never ever have been without it, not even if I had known the cost from the beginning. Because of him I became confident in Korean, had the best experiences with him, and after his passing, I met the sweetest people to mourn him with. I’m particularly thankful for a budding friendship with his brother. We are a great support to each other and he frequently sends me encouraging and supporting texts, very often when I need them the most.
Life is fleeting. Be thankful for what you have. And make sure to let your loved ones know that you love them.