How Death Changed My Life (& Why It’s Important to Think About Yours)

How Death Changed My Life (& Why It’s Important to Think About Yours)

For most of my life, I kept a tragedy to myself.

An event that I witnessed at a young age altered my thinking forever. It fueled the way I approach life. In recent years, I began sharing how death changed my life.

When I was a freshman in high school, I saw a good friend of mine die.

Paul Kartlick was playing basketball in PE class one day and tripped. He hit his head on the outdoor concrete court and died on the spot. One moment we were playing basketball and the next moment he was gone. He was 14 years old.

Paul’s death made me realize something—death is imminent. It’s closer with each passing minute. I realized that quite literally any day, at any time, I might die.

If Paul could die while just playing basketball, when and how might it happen to me?

From that day forward, I began living with an odd sense that I, too, might die young.

With an indefinite number of days to live, I began to seek out ways to fulfill my purpose, whatever it was. I wanted to live a life of meaning. At 14 I may not have fully understood my purpose, but I knew I had to make each and every day count for something.

I began asking two questions every day about everything I did:

1) What is important now?

2) What is next?

Each day we live is filled with “the little things.” For some, that can become mundane, but I reasoned that all the little things in my life would add up to something bigger—my purpose. I devoured the little things in my life, accomplishing them with the urgency and commitment based on the belief that they were painting the larger picture of my life’s purpose.

I realized something: if I could die at any moment, that meant that the next 15 minutes could very well be the most critical part of my life! What could I do in the next 15 minutes that would radically change my life and the lives of others around me?

Little things—taking a few of my sister’s chores so she could leave for her date a little earlier; writing a letter to let someone know how much they meant to me; making my bed so someone wouldn’t have to do it after I was gone.

Living a life of meaning does not have to be as complicated as we make it out to be.

Start small, every day. Make that phone call, write a letter, research that idea—these are the kinds of little things I do as soon as they occur to me. Don’t put off the little things. They add up together, creating the bigger purpose of your life. Act as if today is all you have.

Life is short.

Our days are numbered.

Our lives are limited.

Life passes quickly.

We know we will die, but we don’t know how long we will live.

Every day, ask yourself, What is important now? What is next?

These two questions will lead you to your purpose in life, one day at a time.

Photo by disparkys

Robert D. Smith

Robert D. Smith is the author of 20,000 Days and Counting, a crash course in living every day with maximum intensity and purpose. He writes about personal growth, entrepreneurship, and more at TheRobertD.com.

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24 Comments

  1. But most people have difficulty staying awake to the energetic fact that we are going to die. So they think they have time to waste, time to indulge, and time for crappy behavior, self-pity and rejection of the challenges that come to them.

    The warriors of Carlos Castaneda’s work have a neat trick to stay awake to the value of the moment: They live with the image of Death sitting on his mat just behind their shoulder, ready to touch them at any moment. When they drift into any of our many rejections of life, they ask Death for advice: “Do I have time for any crap?” Death always answers, “No.”

    It’s not possible to stay awake unless we fully understand that we are going to die.

    Reply
    • Wow, Gary…very powerful example! I love that idea. Thanks for the insight!

      Reply
  2. “all the little things in my life would add up to something bigger—my purpose” This is a great insight. Yes, so many people think “life purpose” is something that’s on the shelf and they have to search. No, the purpose is now, in the living.

    I am probably much older than you (51), and feel I have done all I came to do. Yet, I am still around, and cherishing each day is by itself another aspect of why I am here.

    Thank you for this great reading, Robert. I am heading over to your blog now.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Akemi! Just so you know, my guess is that there is MUCH more for you left to do. 51 is young, sister! I’m actually a few years older :-)

      Keep cherishing the moment and asking yourself those two questions on a daily basis. Your spirit will know what to do next.

      Reply
      • Hi, I just went over to your blog and figured out we are in the same age group ;)

        I don’t mean I am done, and I know 51 is young. At the same, you see, time is flexible. Some people haven’t lived enough at age 90 and some completes it at age 14 (or even 4 — in a way that we usually don’t take into consideration)

        Reply
  3. Thank you for writing, Robert. What a great point – that it is not always the “big stuff” we need to be addressing right now, though it certainly is important. It might be that little thing for us that turns into a big thing for others.

    For a while, I was living for others and basing my decisions on what I thought others would think was “good” – such stress! Now that I have taken time to address my own needs, I am able to be more present with those I love. Instead of complaining and commiserating, I am a much a better friend, wife, family member.

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading, Tammy! Soooo glad you’ve been able to live with less stress and enhance the lives of those who are most important to you!

      Reply
  4. I’m so sorry you had to witness the death of a friend at such a young age. Thank you for sharing this powerful message. Unfortunately, for most of us, it takes a tragedy to “shake us out of our sleep-like state” and really take our life in our own hands. Yes, life is short and we need to use every moment, live every day to its fullest. Thank you for a great reminder of that.

    Reply
    • I’m glad it served as a useful reminder for you, Anne-Sophie! Hopefully more people can be reminded without having to experience tragedy. Thanks for commenting :-)

      Reply
  5. I had a similar epiphany at a funeral listening to the eulogy, all these wonderful word that the person never got to hear. The next time I wished someone happy birthday on Facebook it occurred to me that it was a great opportunity to tell them all the things I wish they knew about how awesome they are. I started a blog and spent the next year writing posts for my friends’ birthdays. It felt wonderful to tell people how much I love them and have it really sink in. I collected them all at http://halfbakedbirthday.tumblr.com/

    Reply
    • That’s amaaaaazing, Angela! YOU have created memories and honored your friends in a way I’m sure they’ll never forget. For that, I give you a standing ovation!

      Reply
      • A wonderful unintended side effect was a focus on my writing. I had to write often and come up with unique ways to describe people each time. It kick started a whole skew of writing projects, including some professional gigs.

        Thanks for an inspiring article!

        Reply
  6. This is a great write-up. Life will always teach us about life. We need to come to the conciousness of the fact that our days on earth are brief and ensure not only to maximize and make best use of our timen each should count for God.

    Reply
  7. Powerful blog. Yes,We can celebrate life, if we are ever conscious of death. I had read a poem :

    ” The life of time is long,
    The time of life is short,
    So make the life in your time,
    Simple, sweet, serene and sublime “.

    Reply
  8. You learned that lesson much younger than most of us. I have watched several people die as I’ve aged and understand and agree with your premise here.

    Reply
  9. I am sorry you had to witness the death of a friend. I guess everything happens for a reason, and you were able to appreciate life after that. Thank you for the reminder that anything can happen and we have to make the most out of what we have today and focus on what’s important.

    Reply
  10. Brilliant post Robert. What an traumatic, yet enlightening, lesson to learn so young. Yet I believe lessons to this degree are what are needed in order to become your best.

    I suffered over a decade of mental illness and I am grateful for every moment of it as I have been forced to grow in a way I would never have. I feel that if you don’t learn these lessons (of how powerful and finite you are) at a gut level or are not taught these lessons by a strong and positive role model then, for most people, you will never leave the cloud of irresponsibility and blaming of others. I know I would have still been there.

    This I feel is the reason people have mid life crises. It’s a lesson. Life is half-way gone. Time to make conscious choices.

    Ultimately, a great message, well written. Thanks :)

    Reply
  11. Powerful and succinct reminder of how precious time is. The opportunity cost of each wasted 15 minutes can add up to regret and many missed memories.

    Recently read 4-Hour Workweek and found the included poem memorable:

    SLOW DANCE, David L. Watherford, Child Psychologist (excerpt)

    Ever told your child,
    We’ll do it tomorrow?

    And in your haste,
    Not see his sorrow?

    Ever lost touch,
    Let a good friendship die

    Cause you never had time
    To call and say, “Hi”?

    You’d better slow down.
    Don’t dance so fast.

    Time is short.
    The music won’t last.

    Reply
  12. Wow, it’s amazing you were able to take that realization from such a situation, alot of people would be unable to do so.

    I know I get distracted too much and do unimportant things, I will think of this next time I do so.

    -Ben

    Reply
  13. @Emily, that’s a very touching poem. Thanks for sharing.

    Robert, thanks for the post, I’d never thought of my own mortality in that sense. Two of my friends died in a bike accident, and my brother recently passed away in a car crash at 21. I’ve been dwelling in self-pity, barely registering that my parents would be in a worse shape and my husband’s been carrying me for so long while I find my feet.

    Thanks for the wake-up call. I’ve been thinking I’ve had to do something really big and influential to make my mark, but really, I really should also be looking at the little things… Telling my closest friends what they mean to me, helping my other brother through his own troubles by talking to him more often, carrying my husband for once and helping him realize his dreams, and giving my parents more of my time than I have been.

    Life is indeed short.

    Reply
    • Very thoughtful, Liane. I would be crippled as well by your recent experiences. Turning them into a greater awareness of those around you and giving back is an incredible way to honor the loss.

      Reply
  14. Hi Robert,

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us. It seems like that experience has guided your life over the years and has eventually given you some perspective on things. As a teenager for you to see another friend die in front you can be a traumatic experience. I’m glad you find your way and have learned to process the unfortunate event in your life that you now hold dear. Death reminds us that we’re only here briefly so we better enjoy it while we’re here and accept what is. I think death is only a part of the process of life, because nothing is wasted but somehow recycled for another generation of life.

    Thanks,
    Eugene

    Reply
  15. I had the same thought when there were rumors of the world ending last December. I mean, I was pretty sure it wasn’t true, but it made me think about life and how short it is. After that time, I became more conscious of doing everything that I can. I made it a point to do at least one thing that I’d do if the world were coming to an end. That is, to spend time with friends and family, to do all those little things I’ve been putting off, and to give attention to those that I have been ignoring.

    Reply
  16. Thanks for a wonderful post Robert. In my work I do a lot with people looking for their purpose, concerned with that elusive destiny. What you realized at a remarkably young age is that our purpose is not some grand accomplishment, but, the day to day expression of our lives. It is all those 15 minutes that make up how you’ve lived and determine whether you’ve fulfilled your purpose or not.

    Reply

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