The loss we feel when a person dies is difficult to put into words. We are not only overwhelmed by the grief of losing them in the present, we must also contend with the heartbreaking knowledge that we face the future without them. It is the greatest pain we are forced to endure as human beings. And although we all know death is a natural part of the circle of life, accepting that fact does little to ease our suffering when we lose someone important to us.
Over the last several years we have lost two beloved members of the Meadows family. Both individuals had been employees for a considerable length of time. Over the years we had not only gotten to know them as coworkers but as friends. Each was respected by the staff and their peers, and each made their contributions to the success of our organization. But far more importantly we got to know them as human beings. They were people that we cared about and who, in return, cared about us. They were not just valued because of their job skills or their productivity or their work ethic - they were valued because of who they were.
Both of our friends epitomized why the Meadows is a place of opportunity and hope. They each had abilities they could contribute in a vocational setting once they were given the chance. They each took pride in being employed, and they loved coming to work. They each made many friends, and they each helped to make the work day an uplifting experience. Having a job was important in their lives. It didn’t just create activity to occupy them; it provided mental stimulation as they constantly learned new skills and accepted new challenges. It kept them moving physically so they could remain healthy as long as possible. And, most significantly, it gave them a sense of achievement and accomplishment.
We were fortunate to share many years together. The sound of their laughter balanced the daily challenges, and their personal successes overshadowed the ever present health concerns. Physical issues were dealt with through compassion and adaptability, and the reward of friendship triumphed over difficulties in communication. We miss their generosity, their thoughtfulness and their ability to make us feel good on a bad day. We miss their raucous enthusiasm and their quiet contemplation. Year after year our two friends showed up for work and asked for nothing more than the opportunity to be treated as equals. Their desire to be accepted and their willingness to accept others is an example we can all learn from.
When a person who has lived with the challenges of a development disability dies, it is a stirring reminder of what it really means to be human. Their loss created a void that can never be filled because they were each unique with their own personality and character that we loved and enjoyed. Their passing has changed our organization forever because the daily interaction we had counted on with each one of them is now lost. The fun and humor that was shared is gone, and the joy of spending our days working side by side with them has come to an end. But we can at least be thankful for the memories we have of those who were so important to us. We can reflect on how much our lives were blessed and enriched by their presence.
Although they each had many accomplishments at the Meadows, perhaps their greatest achievement was the fact that they made us better people. They helped us to accept others for who they are, which made us kinder, gentler and more compassionate. When confronted with their innocence we lost our cynicism and skepticism. Because we were entrusted with their welfare and safety, their needs became our needs, and we admired the way they lived with dignity which earned them the respect they deserved. As we supported them, they lifted us up with their spirit and their joy. We learned from each other because even as we taught them vocational skills, they taught us something far more important - they taught us how to live. Through their lives they showed us what really matters. It’s not how many possessions we have or the size of our bank account. It’s not about having power or privilege, and it’s not about popularity or prestige.
Our friends showed us that what is truly important in life is how we treat each other.
The lessons they taught us will survive along with our treasured memories of them. They have given us a gift that will always be with us. Their legacies are present each morning when we open our doors. They help us to remember exactly why we are in business and what we are really trying to accomplish. Because although the Meadows provides a service to our customers, our real purpose as an organization is to provide positive change in the lives of individuals just like our friends. But it is impossible to work with incredible people like the ones we’ve lost and not be changed ourselves.
Reality is the same for all of us. As we go through the years, struggling to do the best we can, we have good times and bad - successes and failures - sickness and health. We stumble through our days trying to find real meaning until we thankfully come to the realization that it is the people in our lives that make life worth living. Those that we care about, and who care about us, are what matter. It’s the people we take the journey of life with that make our existence meaningful - and that point is driven home to us when we are forced to go on without them.
Sometimes death is sudden and shocking, while other times a person slowly fades away giving us the chance to say goodbye. In either case the sense of loss is severe and the pain is real. Deep down we all know the end can come at any moment. That is why we should never take the people who are important in our lives for granted. Spending time with them gives us opportunities to create the memories that we will one day cherish. In the case of both of our coworkers, we will never stop missing them, and they will always be a part of the Meadows family.
At the end of a human life we can ask one simple question: is the world a better place because that person lived?
In the case of our two beautiful friends the answer is a most heartfelt yes.