I have wanted to write this article for two years now, but I haven't been able to bring myself to do it... until now. What I am about to share is very personal to me, but I hope that you walk away with some encouragement and reminders that cost me quite a bit to learn. This is a photo of my nephew and one of his closest friends. I snapped this photo as we were saying goodbye, and it was a moment that was seared in my heart forever and one that I will never forget.
October 12th, 2016. My nephew, Frank, was a senior in high school and it was his 19th birthday. It was going to be a very hectic day for me in the office, but it was early in the morning so I still had a small window to call him before he was off to school for the day. I had the phone in my hand ready to call him and wish him a happy birthday. I wanted to tell him that I loved him, that I was so proud of him, and that I hoped he enjoyed his day. And then I got distracted. I put the phone down because I just had to respond to an "urgent" email and told myself that I would call him that night when I got home from work when I wasn't so slammed. Things would be calmer then, and I could spend more time talking to him. It would be fine.
Except it wasn't. I never got to make that call. Frank died that night on his way home from his birthday dinner and I will always regret that decision.
This Saturday would have been his 22nd birthday, and I can only imagine the incredible man he would have become. As soon as he turned 18, he enlisted in the Army Reserves, even though he still had to finish his senior year of high school. He was in the ROTC in high school and loved competing in the drill team. He was an incredibly smart and focused young man. He was funny, always had a smile on his face, never met a stranger, and he was determined to define his future for himself and not let circumstances or society decide it for him.
I will never forget snapping the photo of his friend saying goodbye to Frank. It seemed so surreal. I couldn't believe that this was happening and that I would never get the chance to say all of the things that were in my heart towards him. I was furious with myself for letting that moment pass because of something so trivial. That was the moment that I decided that I never wanted the hustle of my career to interfere with the truly important things in life.
I wish that I could say that I have been perfect at this, but I haven't. It has been and is a journey for me. Here are 5 things that I have learned over the past 3 years since we said goodbye to Frank.
#1 - Kick FOMO Out of Your Life
FOMO - Fear of Missing Out is a real thing. In retrospect, that email was not critical. It wasn't urgent. It wasn't even all that important. It just felt important because I had not yet given myself permission to determine my own priorities instead of letting someone else decide where my attention should be focused. Since then, I have learned that just because a topic is top of mind for someone else, it does not mean that it has to be top of mind for me the moment I receive it. I know that it a shocking statement, but I stand by it.
Many of us are afraid of missing an email or a meeting that we deem essential... because what happens if I don't respond in 5 seconds? What if they meet without me? What if they have a conversation over email, and I don't immediately reply? How will that look? What will they think? I know it sounds crazy, but the truth of the matter is that many people honestly feel this kind of pressure over an email... over an EMAIL! Since then, I have learned that moments are precious, and I can never get time back once I let it go. So I made a choice to set my own priorities. I decide what is important and when. When I begin working with someone, I simply communicate my working style early and set expectations. Truth be told, more often than not, they feel empowered to do the same.
#2 - Don't Let the Hustle Steal Your Life - Live In the Moment
Chasing the hustle can motivate many of us, but it should never define our life. If I am honest, I was so busy chasing the hustle that I missed more of my life than I would care to admit. Now, I am not saying that you shouldn't hustle or that you shouldn't follow your passion, but I am saying that it should be balanced with chasing true happiness.
That day, I was reminded that if I was not careful, life would pass me by, and I would completely miss it because I was choosing not to slow down enough to enjoy the people that made my life great. I was letting my hustle steal the special moments in my life, and I wanted them back. I decided that chasing moments that would last when the hustle was over was much more important to me than watching them just pass me by. I wanted to learn to be intentional with my life and be present in the moments that mattered.
#3 - Live Fearlessly
My nephew was a very passionate young man. He was passionate about family, he was passionate about his country, and he was passionate about chasing his dreams. He had 101 reasons to make excuses in life and be less than he dreamed, but he refused them all. He was only 19, and he had learned something that many of us could take notes from. He had learned that no one and I mean no one would set his destiny for him. He had a purpose and a plan, and he was going to chase it fearlessly.
When people ask me why I decided to start my YouTube channel - this is why. I had given myself all of the excuses in the world, but Frank inspired me just to let them go. If my nephew could set aside his excuses, then so could I.
#4 - Grieve on Your Own Terms
As much as I would love to say that our colleagues are going to be forever supportive when you are grieving, often they are not. No doubt that when the tragedy occurs, everyone offers their words of encouragement, dinners, and flowers seem endless, but that quickly fades, and you are left picking up the pieces of your life. Their world moves on, and yours has fallen apart. Now what?
Well, now you have to give yourself permission to grieve on your own terms, and it generally is not going to happen in the 3-5 business days that is defined by many HR policies. People are going to move on, forget, be insensitive, be demanding, and put pressure on you, but you have to advocate for yourself. Grief is a process, and it will smack you at the oddest of times, in the strangest of places, and when you are not expecting it. There will be pressure to get back to "normal."
A month later, people will ask you questions like, "Are you okay?" "Why do you look sad?" "What's wrong?" You may momentarily consider causing them bodily harm, but then you reconsider and just say - "I'm fine." But you are not fine, and you can't imagine ever being fine again. Trust me when I say that the business will be okay. It will keep moving whether you are on the train or not. However, if you don't make yourself a priority and take care of yourself, and allow yourself to grieve on your own terms, you won't be. Don't let anyone else dictate when and how you grieve. Period.
#5 - Smile and Embrace Your Life
Frank could take a selfie like no one else. He had the most amazing smile that just seemed to say - I know something that you don't. He captured moments in his life that we all cherish to this day. Moments of laughter, hilarious moments that make us laugh, and moments that make us proud. In fact, when we were trying to figure out what we would say to hundreds of his peers and friends who loved him and who were so young to lose a friend - we told them this. Frank wouldn't want you to be overcome with grief and mourn him forever. He would want you to remember the joy and friendship you shared. Frank would want you to live life to the fullest. He would want you to smile, take that selfie, and embrace life.
You never know who will need to see that picture of you one day and be inspired to be brave and leap over the pain and live life. So that is what we did. We smiled even though our hearts were breaking. We took pictures together to remember his love for family and our love for him... even though we realized that it was the first picture he would not be in. We remembered. We Smiled. We embraced the life that he couldn't, and we know we made him proud.
Frank D. Wilson October 12, 1997 - October 12, 2016