Life, Love & Death: Part 2

By Lennie Echterling
JMU Counseling Faculty

Two years ago on Valentine’s Day, a reporter from the local television station called me.  She wanted to film an interview with a  counselor about the psychology of love for a news feature that evening.  Even though I was busy, I agreed to do it because I had a particular agenda that I wanted to promote.  I have long been concerned that the media have placed entirely too much emphasis on one particular form of love – romantic.  This interview would be a nice opportunity to draw attention to the other kinds of love we have for our fellow human beings. In a time in which there is so much conflict and strife in the world, I wanted to promote Valentine’s Day as a time to commemorate, cherish, and reflect on how others enrich our lives with their countless acts of love, generosity, kindness, and compassion.

Before the interview, I quickly jotted down several talking points. The first fact that I wanted to highlight was that every year teachers receive more Valentine cards than any other demographic group.  Another important piece of information I wanted to note was  that Valentine cards for nonromantic relationships, such as relatives and friends, dominate the greeting card racks. In fact, millions of people use this holiday to express their feelings of affection and devotion to those with whom they are not romantically involved, but nevertheless deeply love.

As the camera began to record the interview in my office, I used every chance I could to point out that love for others is not limited to only courtship.  In fact, a sense of attachment is a fundamental need not only in the early years of our personal development, but also throughout our lives.  Our deep bonds of loving relationships include those with our parents, caregivers, friends, relatives, mentors, teachers, spiritual leaders, and healers.  I even came up with what I thought was a great sound bite.  I said to the interviewer, “We celebrate our independence on the Fourth of July, but we should rejoice in our interdependence on Valentine’s Day.”  I went on to talk about how we could use this day to thank those whose loving devotion had made such a big difference in our lives. Valentine’s Day was our chance to express our love and gratitude to all humanity, not just our romantic partners.

In spite of my best efforts to convince her, the interviewer wasn’t buying any of it.  She kept coming back with questions about courtship and I stubbornly stayed on message.  At one point, she asked, “Is there such a thing as love at first sight?”

I answered, “Of course! For example, in my work with disasters, I’ve  witnessed countless acts of love that strangers offered to survivors. It’s so inspiring to see these people immediately show their love by  reaching out to those in need and sharing their time, sweat, money, and hearts.”

That evening, I watched the local news and discovered that the reporter had cut nearly all of my comments.  Instead, she had found another counselor who focused entirely on romantic relationships and  passionate love.  I was disappointed, but not surprised that this resourceful reporter had found another spokesperson in agreement with her perspective on Valentine’s Day.

A few minutes after the broadcast, I received a telephone call. I thought that it was someone who had seen the news feature, but the caller was my brother Dennis, who lived across the country from me. He had recently returned from a business trip to Thailand and telephoned to share his adventures with me.  I immediately forgot about my disappointment as I heard the wonderful details about his travels, discoveries and experiences. He described the beautiful temples that he had visited, the warm people he had met, and the fun  he had parasailing for the first time.  Of course, I made a stupid pun about the great ties that he must have found there in Thailand. Dennis always brought the kid out in me.  We also exchanged updates on our children, spouses, and day-to-day lives.  After nearly an hour, we ended our conversation.  We wished each other a happy  Valentine’s Day and, as we had done in closing our telephone calls over the past several years, told one another, “I love you.”

Five days later, Dennis was killed in a mountain-climbing accident. The sudden and tragic loss of my brother was a painful shock.  He left behind a young widow, two teenage children, and many grief-stricken relatives and friends.  In my heartache and anguish, I found that I took some small comfort in the fact that our final words were affirmations of our love to one another.

As the second anniversary of my brother’s death approaches, I feel even more strongly that Valentine’s Day is a reminder to cherish and celebrate all forms of love. The fundamental challenge we face in life is not so much in finding true love with one special person as it is in recognizing the true love that is all around us.  The deep and heart-felt emotional bond tying us together takes on many wonderful forms – a parent’s rapt gaze into an infant’s eyes, a  mentor’s patient presence in a child’s life, a stranger’s random act of kindness, or a life-long friend’s playful bantering.  Whatever the form, love is the core of our humanity, the fabric of our shared sense of community, and the measure of our meaning in life.

My intention in sharing my Valentine’s Day story is not to uplift you.  Instead, my hope is to goad you into feeling a sense of urgency  to make every day – not just Valentine’s Day – a labor of love.  The most important lesson of that experience for me has been to treat every encounter as possibly the last I will ever have with someone. In that never-to-be-repeated moment, I have the existential choice to listen with empathy, speak from the heart, act with compassion, and  show unconditional acceptance.

I was lucky that my last conversation with my brother ended with us  affirming how we felt for one another.  But you and I cannot leave such a vitally important message to chance.  If we are truly dedicated to personal growth and thriving relationships, then we must treat every day as if it were Valentine’s Day. Once a year is hopelessly inadequate to address our fundamental needs. We need to exercise our hearts with daily workouts of compassion for all our fellow human beings.

So, this is my Valentine to you. Thank you for allowing me to share my story and I wish you the best in being an agent of compassion throughout the year!


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24 thoughts on “Life, Love & Death: Part 2

  1. I'm really happy that Tom sent me over here to read your posts Stevie. I have read one before (the suicide one) but it's always upliftimng to see what an impaoct we can have on other people's lives. Thanks for posting (And I bet you must be enjoying Tom's story)

  2. Well, it's funny. I was already tuned in to the fact I had gotten so many messages in one day. But I was tired tired tired when I got home from work and wasn't up to blogging. Then to start looking through my neighborhood and find Tom's post… well… it was one message too many and I just felt I was meant to share them. Cheesy, maybe. But coupled with real deaths and real tragedies, they have new meanings. Thanks for your note. I read the story about your step-son and I'm glad you posted it. Yet another tragedy. All the way around. Who do you blame? Who got hurt the worst in that crash? My heart goes out to your husband and all the other people involved.

  3. Tom sent me over to read your posts- and I'm glad he did.I am so sorry you lost your brother, I'm glad your last conversation with him ended in you both affirming your love for each other.I have lost 12 family members since 2004- so I know how much it hurts. Thankfully, my family and I are a loving bunch of people- we talk all the time, and always tell each other how much we love each other. My 2 sisters and I live close together, and spend a lot of time together, and even when we can't be together during the week, we call each other and talk daily, and always tell each other we love one another. we are people lovers, I work as a caregiver for elderly people, and I love it, it gives me so much joy to bring some love, happiness, and friendship into their days.Love Is Much More Than – Romantic Love!!!

  4. Hi Tammie, thanks for reading the posts. The one you are referring to was actually written by Tom about a woman he works with – not me! I've lost my dad and grandmother and both times it drew family closer together. I am thankful that we are able to reach out and be there for each other because, man does it hurt. I posted the series because I felt like God was talking to my heart this week. I was
    given or sent or made aware of four different stories/situations in ONE DAY that
    all centered around the themes in the title – life, love, and death. Tom's was the fourth.I can't believe you have lost so many people in your family so quickly. Holy cow. You guys must be reeling, just hit after hit after hit. Thank God it sounds like your family is really good at loving and showing love. I admire families that are so tight and connected. You are really lucky. And blessed.

  5. This one hits real closr to home. A few years ago I spent Christmas with my brother, whom I didn't get to see often and we had a wonderful time, better than usual. It was a few months later I got the call that he had died on his way to work. Aged 39…

  6. Sigh… that is heart breaking. I hope your last visit was a good one. Stories like that make me want to be extra sure that every interaction I have (as much as is possible) is left in a way that both people feel good about it. That way if the worst should happen there won't be so much unfinished business.

  7. Yes, if my sisters and I weren't so close, I don't think we could have made it through all this without losing our minds. We lost our mom ten years ago, will be on April 3rd. But starting in 2004, we lost my grand dad, then our grandma, then, our dad, then our step-dad, then our aunt June, then, our aunt Helen, then our cousin Lana, then, our cousin Tommy, then our uncle James, then, our aunt Lavada. Then, we lost my husbands uncle Tiny, then his aunt Ann, and now- just this past week, we lost my husbands uncle Howard.It's been an unreal feeling losing all these loved ones, just like boom, boom, boom.My sisters and other family members have really been thinking- we don't take life for granted any more, we make sure to tell each other how much we love each other- because you never know, it might be the last time you get to tell them. Life is an uncertain thing, we never know what's going to happen from one minute to the next. We spend a lot of time together, too.I think everyone should end their visits and phone conversations on a good note, because you never knoe if it's your last!!!

  8. Oh my! I would definitely say that it had a major impact in our family too. I know that when they played taps, there was not a dry eye in the whole place. Even today, just hearing a trumpet brings all those emotions back.

  9. I know, it does- I still break down and cry sometimes, like the night I heard the song-"I'll Fly Away"- sometimes it's just different things that will remind me of one of them, and I'll break down. Like, my cousin, Lana- was only 39, and she died from an accidental overdose of pain medication in her sleep, and every time I here her favorite song "The Rose"by Bette Midler, I have one of my emotional breakdowns and start crying.

  10. It was interesting how many odd things reminded me of my dad the first year or two after he died. A smell, a song, an expression, a movie, a building… Lots of weird things brought it back for me. With my grandmother, the reminders are much more real and tangible. I have a bunch of her furniture, china, and house stuff. But the best thing is a necklace of a dove which she wore every single day for 37 years. She never took it off. So I'm now wearing it and it's a touchstone for me. Whenever I think about her can just touch the dove and feel close to her.

  11. When my grandmother died, it was terrible. She was actually our Step-Grandma, but the only Grandma we had ever known. She had a stroke and was doing pretty good, but had a second one a couple years later and lost the ability to swallow. It wasn't long after that she passed on.
    Terrible part was that from the last time we visited her, it was probably less than three months from when she had the the second stroke and died. Not one of her kids called us until after she had died. WTF? They were almost shocked that we wanted to attend the funeral. Then, after the service, they put some of Grandma's stuff on the dining room table and told us to take what we wanted. It was like a garage sale or something. Very unsettling.
    There were two things we wanted to remember Grandma by, first was her little colored glass candy dish. She always had it out with candy in it for us grandkids, she always made us feel welcome. Of course, it was some cheap trinket to them, so no problem. Second item was a small statue of a dog, which my Grandma and Grandpa bought just after their dog Max died. They kept that little statue in remembrance of him, in a little dog bed on the fireplace. It too had no value, so they were willing to let us have it.
    Sheesh. I told my wife, that when she goes, she better have a list of which kid gets what and what gets sold. I told her that all my stuff can go to whomever it would do the most good. It seems that Grandma's kids were so worried that we might be after their inheritance money or something, which my Mom was, but that's a whole other story… Love you Grandma!

  12. Family drama… what can you do? People do sometimes get all crazy and greedy about stuff. I could tell you stories about my uncle that would make your teeth curl, but that's for another day.I'm glad you got the things that touched your heart. That really helps, doesn't it?

  13. It is odd the things that remind us of our lost loved ones. I'm glad you have your grandmother's necklace and can wear it, and have good memories of her every day, that's nice.My dad loved sunflowers, and always planted a row at the back of his garden every year. There was a field of sunflowers on a road I travel down about every day, and I would just look at those sunflowers and think about my dad and his beloved sunflowers.

  14. That's awful!!! How cruel to not tell you, and let you attend her funeral, and then putting her stuff up on a table, like it was a yard sale or something. That is horrible!!! What in the world is wrong with people. Sounds like my family- on dad's side!!!I am so sorry this happened to you.

  15. Family drama- No Kidding!!! When my grandpa passed away, my dad already had cancer, my dad had already told my sisters and I – we were in his will, we would inherit his part of share of his parents estate, because he was to get 1 third of it- then my grandma died, then, dad, was put in the hospital dying of cancer, his second wife hated me and my 2 sisters, she had 3 daughters of her own. So, as dad got sicker and sicker, he was given more and more morfine for the pain- dad died. My uncle called me and told me that dad's wife had dad's will changed in the hospital, 3 days before he died- he didn't know he was in the world, little on have the ability to sign a legal document. But, she got her lawyer and his doctor to let my dad make a mark on the paper changing his will, and she had us cut out. My aunt and uncle were furious, because- our grandparentswanted the land to be kept in our family. Dad's wife demanded they sell it or give her 33 thousand dollars cash. My uncle begged us to sue her, but my sisters and I said we weren't going to sue, if the bitch wanted it that bad, let her have it.We told our family, we had always worked for our money, and we would be fine, and we didn't think she would get any pleasure out of spending what she had took, after what she had done to get it. She's the one that has to live with it.

  16. How horrible. Reminds me of my stepmom, she used to always tell me to be nice to her because she had money, hinting that if I wasn't I'd get written out of the will. I told her pretty much the same about working for my own money, keep hers. My wife's Mother passed away a while back and come to find out that she had written my wife out of her will. No reason given, just gave her share to my wife's kids.
    We'll never know all of it, but there were some things that went on that my wife's family had no clue about and they thought that my wife was the bad guy in all of it. Ironic part was that my wife turned down a full paid scholarship when her Dad died, she had to work to keep the family house, which for some reason was never revealed to her brother and sister. Talk about adding insult to injury…
    She was upset that the kids were getting the money because it should have been hers. We talked about it and I explained that she could look at it like giving her kids their inheritance early. She could make sure they spent it wisely and got to see them enjoy it. Which she has.

  17. Man- I'm sorry your wife had to turn down a paid scholarship- that's just downright terrible! How smart of you to suggest to your wife that – to look at the kids getting the money as their inheritance and to help them spend it wisely. That was a really good idea, that way at least you could help them , not to waste it- but, to make good decisions in spending it. And- be around to see them enjoy it!btw.- Don't any of us know why dad's wife never liked us, and never wanted us to come see our dad. My dad would actually tell his wife he was going to play golf, or coming down to Oak Hollow Lake fishing, in order to get to come and see my sisters and I. When they got married, we invited them to all holiday get togethers, but she would say-"we're having my daughters over, so we won't be coming."

  18. That's sad. My stepdaughter kind of went through the same thing with her Dad and his new wife too. Some things we'll never know. At least your Dad came to visit, I had to call hers adn shame him into coming over to spend some time with his daughter. Sheesh. Oh, worst part about the wife and scholarship thingy? It was a full paid trip to Julliard. Yup. I think if she had seen how her life had played out, she would have pissed on her mom and just gone. Different times back then though…

  19. Oh Man- full paid to Julliard, that is awful!!! If she had only known and could have went, but- we can't change the past, I know. I am so sorry. I'm sorry about your stepdaughter, too.I know- there's just some things we'll never understand or know the reason for.

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