Are You Constantly Looking for the Extraordinary? What if You Stopped?

Yesterday I learned that one of my teachers from NYU died.  It happened last week, yet somehow I didn’t know about it. I was talking with my friend Kate from college, and she suddenly said “You know about Peter, right?” When she told me, I stopped in my tracks and couldn’t speak.

I’m a terrible dancer and he was my African Dance teacher. We were forced as drama majors in my school to take African Dance freshman year, and I always dreaded it. It was first thing in the morning and I was always exhausted. And there was so much drumming and jumping…and did I mention I suck at dancing?

Yet Peter, my teacher, always had so much energy. He was smiling and shining every frigging day…just beaming. It was insane how much energy he had and how much he danced in our classes all day. I remember feeling tired just watching him. Yet by the end of the year, I was African Dancing with the rest of the class. I was jumping and throwing my arms and skipping and bobbing my head and moving my back in funny ways. It was far from perfect. It was probably far from even sort of good. But it was.

And I was proud of myself.

So thanks, Peter, for giving me those moments of taking it all in- of forcing myself to do something imperfectly and to find joy anyway. For showing me that I can be terrible at something and still do it imperfectly but proudly. To find pleasure in my own ordinariness.

He posted a quote on his Facebook wall before he died, and it really stuck with me. I think it sums up a lot of what he taught me, and how I feel about those lessons. I’m posting it below.

“Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.”

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How to Talk to A Grieving Friend in Your Thirties

Sheryl Sandberg wrote a beautiful statement today on Facebook about mourning the death of her husband. He died very suddenly in a tragic accident on a treadmill while they were on vacation in Mexico.

The statement was made after she came out of 30 days of intense mourning for him- a tradition in Judaism known as shiva. Even though it’s been 30 days, I can’t imagine her pain is anything less than fresh and intense, so I’m amazed she put out an incredible brief on Facebook so early on in her grieving process.

Sandberg’s statement is incredibly sad, but it’s also helpful as well as brave. I remember trying to talk to a friend last month whose grandmother had recently died. I didn’t want to upset her and I didn’t know what to say, so I ended up shamefully trying to avoid her until I gathered up my nerve to speak.

Even now, in my thirties, I feel like I never really know the right thing to say to a grieving friend, or relative. But there are definitely better things to say than others.

Sheryl has some great ways to approach (or not approach) this difficult subject. Here are a few:

1. Don’t tell your friend that it’s going to be okay

“A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not.”

2. Ask your friend how he or she is doing today instead of a simple “how are you doing?”

“When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.”

3. You don’t have to reassure the other person in order to empathize

“When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth.”

Other things to say to someone who has lost a loved one include:

– Simply addressing the situation: “I heard your _______ died. I’m so sorry”

– Be genuine: “I’m not sure what to say, but I want you to know I care”

– Offer support: “Is there anything I can do for you?”

– Be willing to just sit and listen with compassion.

Things NOT to say include:

-“I know how you feel” – You can never really know how the person feels.

-“They’re in a better place now.” -You never know if the person you’re talking to believes this.

– “It’s part of God’s plan” – This can cause the person to get angry and actually say something like “What plan? I wasn’t aware of any plan.”

– “You need to get on with your life.” Grief moves at its own pace. This statement is unlikely to help anyone to actually get on with their life.

Thank you for sharing such a vulnerable and devastatingly sad yet extremely positive statement, Sheryl. I’m sorry for your loss and am extremely sad for you and your family.

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But Thirty is So Young…

It’s funny how on your journey through your twenties, you always think “Oh man, I can’t believe I’m going to be thirty. I’m getting so OLDDDDD…’

And once you hit thirty, you exclaim ‘Am I an adult now? I’m not a kid anymore… I’m so old. I’m expected to be mature.’

And then, once you’re in your thirties, and especially your later thirties, you try to hide your age because you feel like you’re so old since you aren’t in your twenties anymore. Even the clothing store ‘Forever 21’ reminds us of this every day.

But on my way to work today, I was in a taxi with my coworkers, and we made a remark about how beautiful the beaded gems were that were hanging from our driver’s rearview mirror. We told him how much we liked them.

He thanked us. Then he said that the gems were memorials for his sister and his best friend who had both died tragically of cancer in their thirties.

Their thirties.

A heavy moment of sadness hung in the air. We were silent. We stopped complaining about how we had to work long hours. We stopped complaining about the cold. We definitely weren’t complaining about how old we were in our thirties.

All we could think was ‘they were so young.’

I realize I take so much for granted.  I remember the story of Brittany Maynard, who died at 29 of a terrible disease. I start to grasp what a gift it is to live to 30. Even when things seem terrible, I have to recognize how amazing it is to simply still be alive.

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