This is probably one of the most vulnerable – and longest – posts I’ve shared on this blog. It took me a little while to come to a place where I wanted to share it. In fact, I second-guessed myself and shut it down for a couple of months because I didn’t feel ready and I wanted to share from a place of peace. In the last six months I have attended 5 funerals. I’m reminded now more than ever that there will probably never be a time any of us is fully ready for anything. Living life by the READY – FIRE – AIM rule has at times been adventurous but it has also taught me valuable lessons like the one taught to the young man in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist:
“My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the boy told The Alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky. “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams.”
I love writing. It’s a gateway for self-expression and allows thoughts and ideas try to make sense of the world. It has continually shaped my personal and professional life as a strategy advisor and leader.
Born a year before me, I always imagined my sister and I would live long lives, get married (she would organise and style my wedding because I have never in my life met anyone with her creative flare), have kids, be really cool aunties to each other’s children, grow old and reminisce on all the adventures of our lives, making fun of each other like we did when we were younger. Never in a million years would I have dreamt that I would be writing her obituary in my thirties.
In London getting ready to fly home to Kenya for her home-going ceremony in late 2016, I was numb and doing most things on auto-pilot. When my younger sister sent me a message, “Can you please write Grace’s obituary? You’re good with words,” I crumbled. How was I going to sum up the life story of my fire-ball of a sister in a few short paragraphs? She had lived fully and packed a lot into her young life. She had also lived a portion of her life in the public eye and I wanted to tell her untold stories so people would understand who she had been before they knew her. I was both pained and honoured to be using my love for writing to bid her farewell in this way. I could almost hear her say, “Who else can write my obituary, Chienge?” She’d often shorten my middle name.
So in the dead of night I sat to write. A cathartic experience – one my soul probably needed. I had a word limit I struggled with because there was so much I wanted to share. Every few minutes I was receiving text messages, emails and social media direct messages from people in different parts of the world who had met her, known her, been her friend and worked with her. Each had a story of their own to tell and I could feel the pain of their loss just as I knew they felt my family’s and mine. They shared their memories and lessons and even I got a glimpse into parts of my sister’s life I hadn’t seen. There was no way I could sum all of that up in a small portion of a newspaper page.
The 5 funerals I have attended in the last 6 months include my best friend’s teenage daughter and my sister’s. Here are just 7 of the many things that played in my head and heart as I wrote the obituary – which was drastically edited by the newspaper because it was too long. I hope these inspire you to find the courage to live your life fully and to appreciate the value of time and what matters the most to you in life.
Don’t Miss The Highlights of Your Life
There are rules to writing obituaries. I didn’t know this. Only the key highlights of one’s life make it. Birth date and location, education, family members, work, accomplishments, burial date and location. The rest of the highlights belong to those who experience them with you. Private moments that no one else will ever know about except those who love you – and probably those who hate you too. My sister accomplished a lot in her 40 years. Some of it went in the obituary but a huge part of it did not. Those that didn’t, belong to everyone who experienced life with her in one way or another. I wondered what the key highlights of my life would be – the memories my family and friends would have of me? In my teens I learnt about ‘living your dash fully” and with intention. Your dash is that symbol that sits between the year you enter and the year you exit this earth (1977 – 2016). I’m still living my dash years. So are you. What are the key highlights of your life to date? Your education? Your accomplishments? Your relationships and the memories you create? The impact you have made in the lives of everyone who’s crossed your path? The words you’ve spoken that have inspired others to see the light that burns bright within them? How do you want to be remembered? What do you want the highlights to be? Create more of those.
Give It Away – You Can’t Take Anything With You
My sister had lived her whole life travelling light. Our father had been part of the post-colonial administration and we lived a nomadic life as he was posted to different districts for work. She gave her belongings away at the drop of a hat. This included material things as well as knowledge, love and laughter. As someone who took pride in looking after my possessions, she would always remind me, “Chienge, you can’t take anything with you when it’s time to check out. Don’t hold on to things.” I received (and still do) messages from people in different countries who shared how she had given them gifts, their first job opportunity, taught them something they needed to succeed in life or at work without asking for anything in return, ideas she had shared, children she was a god-mother to, men and women she had helped privately when they were going through tough times, charity work she had done away from the public eye. It was testament to the adage, “It’s not what you have but what you do with what you have.”
Those Who Love You Will Always Love You and Those Who Don’t Will Never Matter
As I read through countless messages of love and appreciation for who she had been to her friends, peers and family, I also caught glimpses of disparaging – and largely inaccurate – blogs and articles about portions of her life people did not approve of. I could see how these untimely opinions hurt my siblings but we chose to focus on the positive and getting through the grief. When it boiled down to it, none of the negatives mattered at that point. She had lived and gone. I learnt that none of us is ever going to fully please everyone and we will very likely make mistakes people will judge us harshly for. I also realised that sometimes your life story will be told not by you but by the people who were touched by you in some way. But when all is said and done, those who love you will always love you and those who don’t will never matter in the grand scheme of things.
Family is Everything
Grace had had friends of all ages spread out across the world. To date, I receive messages from her old school mates, colleagues she worked with in different cities, people she met and talked to at professional and social events, connections she made on social media and more. Every time someone says, “I met your sister only once but that one encounter changed my life!” I remember that all it takes in one sentence, one encounter or one moment for any of us to have an impact on someone.
My family lost a grand daughter, daughter, sister, aunt and cousin. But I recognised that she had intentionally created family with everyone she cared about who reciprocated. Family is more than blood relations. Family is love and acceptance. Family is those who see you for who you are, warts and all, and choose to walk with you, work with you, talk to you, fight with you yet pray with and for you until the end. These are the people who value your presence and contributions and feel the impact of your absence. You may have blood relations but family are also the relations you acquire through love and service to the world.
Don’t Put Your Dreams On Hold
This was more a reminder than a lesson. I’d often hear people say to my sister, “Eh! You need to slow down!” She would often respond, “Slow down for why?” (in broken English). We would laugh about it but in hindsight I understand why she did most things with speed. She moved quickly and had little patience for slow-movers. She would always say, “Sis, no one knows tomorrow. Do it today.” I’m a strong believer in the power of RIGHT NOW. I learnt this in my early twenties after our father passed away. There are things people save for later, fail to do, fail to say or fail to experience because of all types of fear or excuses. Which part of your life or dreams are you putting on hold? Why?
Colour Life Beautiful & Capture the Memories
From childhood, my sister had loved fashion, colour, pictures and pranks. She took pictures of everything. Silly moments with friends and family, her hair, her make-up, house-moves, nights in, nights out, outfits, parties, picnics, family, everything. She had idea books and scrap books from as far back as I could remember, handmade cards and a love for writing letters. She collected stamps, different currencies, coins and limited edition champagne corks. She made her own clothes and jewellery if the ones she bought did not fit the look she wanted. She had no problem purchasing a costly item and taking scissors to it to embellish and “add some je ne sais quoi” because it was too boring. Her hair was her canvas. She would cut it, colour it and style it in ways that gave many people palpitations. “It’s only hair, sis. It will grow back.” She would make me try hairstyles that pushed me out of my comfort zone. She captured many of these memories in pictures, videos and written letters. These are the memories I read and watched as I wrote her obituary. I laughed through the tears at some of them. More than anything, I was glad we had taken the opportunity to do silly and outrageous things and take pictures of those. We would sometimes worry about the photos not looking great but now those are the most beautiful photos to me.
Live a Life of No Regrets
Choosing any path will often mean rejecting many others. To me, having no regrets is not about doing everything you want because some of those things will cost you and cost other too. Having no regrets is choosing to honour your dreams and learning to love the choices you make in the process, as daring or unconventional as they might be. My sister took risks in her life and career that meant forfeiting some things and losing some people. She would move countries or cities and leave belongings behind because she had no attachment to them. Her desire to explore her ideas and make a difference in the world gained her relationships and experiences she would probably never have had if she had held back and lived by other’s expectations. I learnt from her triumphs as well as her challenges. I learnt that I will choose certain paths that will mean rejecting others and I will choose to love the choices I make, no matter how unconventional they will be.
Make Time to Connect & Keep in Touch (***Added After Publishing***)
A running theme throughout her life was the ability to keep in touch with people she cared about no matter how far away they (or she) moved. She reached out to friends irrespective of time or their response. At each memorial ceremony held by those who had met and known her, it was clear she had maintained the motto of keeping in touch through email, letters, texts and calls as people shared their condolences with some tinges of regret for time that had run out for them to connect or reconnect.
“She called but I didn’t call her back.”
“She emailed me but I was so busy.”
“She text me just last week. I was going to text back and I just got so busy.”
“I said I was going to see her but work got in the way. You know how things go.”
“I was in Nairobi but I told her I would see her next time I flew down. There was just no time.”
Our lives as busy professionals and entrepreneurs can sometimes consume us and get in the way of keeping the main thing the main thing. As a coach I recognise this as the prioritising of values. We all have different values, and even where we have shared values we rank them in different orders of priority. No matter how busy we get in pursuit of whatever each of us pursue, in the sunset of our lives or the lives of our loved ones, all anyone will remember is the love, the laughter and the memories shared through contact and connection. Everything else will be secondary. Keep in touch.
If you have read until this point, thank you. I hit publish before I could change my mind. I hope you find the courage to do things you are afraid to do. To live your life fully and achieve your dreams. I hope you have beautiful experiences and capture the memories. Take picture, send letters, travel the world. I hope you make choices that serve you well and you learn to love the choices you make, no matter what they are or will be.