My Husband Died at 34—Here Are 40 Life Lessons I Learned From It

Eight weeks after my second child was born, I was burying my husband.

Eight weeks after my second child was born, I was burying my husband. Unsplash/Jordan Whitt

A sudden, unanticipated death has a way of jolting us to our senses. When you’re told that your husband is dead, everything changes in an instant. Life as you know it will never be the same. It can be reinvented, reshaped into something different — but its never the same. Here are 40 life lessons I learned after my husband’s death (and how you can live a full life by age 40):

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1. Life Is short. Live Like You Mean it

This one is the obvious and we say it every day but I don’t think most of us have really soaked this in. Life is really short. When I found myself widowed at 31, I thought to myself , “You have got to be kidding me! We were supposed to both outlive at least our 2 month old baby.” NOT SO. This did not happen.

Instead, 8 weeks after my second child was born, I was burying my husband. I was convinced I was in a dream for months afterwards. I realized I needed to live life on my terms, doing the things that brought me real happiness and joy.

2. Chasing After the Highest Paid Position Is Pointless

None of the wealth accumulated is buried with you. Not the money, the house, the car, or the prestige. Your title at work does not go on your tombstone. When the nurses gave me my husband’s personal effects that night in the hospital in a white plastic bag, it really dawned on me, all of this is temporary. The only thing that counts is the positive impact we make in other people’s lives.

3. Practice Spiritual Self-Renewal

Spiritual Self-Renewal is a very powerful thing. After my husband died, I felt like I was constantly harboring “dry bones.” Regrets, things I should have done, the symptoms I should have picked upon earlier, “if only I had questioned the doctors more, maybe things would be different.” I went on and on, around in circles, again and again.

I learned the hard way that the only way to reinvent myself is to practice constant self-renewal. I had to let my old self die in order to make way for a rebirth. I took a personal inventory to see how much time I gave to these dry bones. It turns out I was robbing my future by harboring dry bones of the past.

4. Take a Sabbatical to Rediscover the Real You

That personal inventory made me realize I needed to take drastic action. I realized I needed to take a break to do some soul-searching. I took a one year, unpaid sabbatical — I packed up my things, put them in storage and headed to beautiful, sunny, Jamaica. There are many ways to take a sabbatical and make it really beneficial both professionally and emotionally. I wrote about doing that here.

Taking a sabbatical was a healing journey and I learned many life lessons. I even learned how to travel on less than $10 a day in premium-priced, tropical Jamaica.

5. Ignore the Naysayers

Regular naysayers are everywhere. Truly live your life on your terms. Not many people thought taking off one year (for a sabbatical) without pay was a good idea. My motivation wasn’t monetary; I needed an intervention.

6. Throwing a Pity Party Is a Waste of Energy

When the hurdles and the roadblocks inevitably come your way, whether professionally or personally, throwing a pity party is a precious waste of energy. Vishen Lakhiani, Founder of Mindvalley and mentor at Aspire-Canada ,  estimates that 99 percent of the world’s population on the planet is stuck in the “Victim Stage.” This is the stage where we harbor a victim mentality and self-pity. (If you find yourself here see #3 above.)

7. Practice Journaling

Now that I’m working on a memoir about overcoming tragedy and grief, I realize now that if I had done this earlier—I would have so much more memories to draw upon. However, journaling can also have huge benefits for future planning.

Many great intuitive thinkers kept journals and could visualize solutions to problems. Isaac Newton had what he called a Waste Book where he stored any important passages from the texts he read. It inspired many of his discoveries.

8. Listen to Your Intuition

Intuition is the inner wisdom that little voice that speaks to us. It is the quiet little voice that is hard to hear if you’re not used to listening — it speaks through dreams, or spontaneously as hunches or gut feelings, strong urges, physical sensations or memories.

While I was on sabbatical I started tuning in to my intuition. It helped me overcome my grief. I had a feeling of being “tapped in,” as if my intuition was in overdrive. I became hyper-creative. I later realized that if I followed my intuition, I would start to make better decisions in life and have better results overall. Most of the best decisions I made in life, came from listening to my intuition.

9. Make Your Own Recipes

On my sabbatical, I came up with my own organic recipes. My late husband’s illness was hypertension-related and I knew I had to start eating better and getting the kids to also eat healthier.

10. Pray and Meditate

This goes without saying. Slowing down is sometimes the best thing we can do. Prayer and meditation is an essential part of spiritual growth.

11. Pay it Forward

After I returned to Canada (from my sabbatical), I realized I needed to be a positive influence and use whatever means I had to make a valid contribution to society. I wanted to help young widowshelp young people in university and most of all I wanted to write about it.

12. See Each Setback as a Gift

It’s hard to see obstacles and tragedy as a hidden gift, but these gifts have the ability to teach wisdom and to transform lives. These types of “gifts” are not shiny objects wrapped neatly with a beautiful bow, but real life lessons in becoming more resilient.

13. Say “No” Sometimes

Tom Hanks — one of Hollywood’s greatest assets, thinks this is one of the biggest reasons for his success. Saying no to projects that didn’t advance his career along:

“The only way I think you can choose — in my position anyway, the only way I could shape my career was by saying no to things I didn’t want to do. And if you say no, and no one else is offering you a job, that means you don’t have a job. It’s easy to say yes to something [when it pays] a lot of money, you get to go somewhere, you get to have fun. They’re working. [Easiest] thing in the world is to say yes. But to look at somebody and say, ‘I’ve done it already, I’m repeating myself, it’s not going to advance me along anymore and I’m in this for something other than that,’ then you gotta say no.

14. Exercise Every Day

Exercise is as vital to our bodies as water and air. Like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, during my sabbatical I hiked everyday to deal with the anxiety and the grief. I hiked the world-famous blue mountain range. I walked on white-sand beaches and picked up seashells with the kids. I saw the beauty in nature and all of God’s creation, and I was in awe. I realized that I was a part of a broader story, and that my story would be written when I established a personal mission.

15. Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

This is futile. You cannot compare your journey to others, everyone has a different path.

16. Be Careful How You Set Your Goals

At 27, I was on an executive track, handpicked to become a future leader in the organization in less than two years. All of that was railroaded after tragedy struck. I had to abandon those ambitions for a while. I have come a full 360 degrees, and realized that if you achieve your goals later than you expected, sometimes there are life lessons that have far greater significance in your life than reaching to the top at 30. It all works out in the end.

17. Meditate on Your Mortality

Life has a way of eventually making us face our mortality head on. It will make you stop and think about your impact on society. The legacy you leave to that lives on long after you are gone. I thought about mine. What did I want to be known for? What would be my legacy?

18. Plan for the Future

Luckily, we had a life insurance policy. Before my husband passed away we sat down with a financial advisor to plan our future. We didn’t know anything was going to happen, we actually were just looking at various retirement options. He reviewed our portfolio and realized that with another child on the way — we didn’t have enough life insurance if one of us passed away. So we took his advice. That was one year before my husband passed away. Now I take financial planning for the future very seriously.

19. Plan for Longevity

Some of us will still live to be 100. The average person can expect to live nearly 30 years more than someone born in 1900 — almost to age 80 — and many people are living longer than that. As we head into 2018, each person should do a careful assessment of their overall health, financial status, likely long-term care needs and family longevity. For that, it helps to have a financial professional. I discussed longevity planning in this article in the New York Times.

20. Take Measured Risks

Measured risks are important to achieve certain goals. Assess the risks, consult with a professional and decide whether its worth it or not. Every risk is an opportunity to waiting to happen (if executed well).

21. Pick a Solid Long-Term Investment—and Stick to it

Not at 40, but before. Learn all you can about it and dive in. Don’t get into debt or leverage what you don’t have but take a measured approach to it and stick it out. Make sure it’s something that you truly love. Investing is part of a solid retirement strategy. I’ve always loved real estate, and I found that after my husband died, it gave me some amount of financial stability to spend more free time with the kids, without having to worry financially. Just pick something and stick with it.

22. Pay Off Debt

Whether its student loans or other kids of debt, paying off debt is always a good thing. Think creatively about how you can do this. There are very creative ways of tackling large expenses. I know one student who applied for and won over $500,000 worth of scholarships — she actually didn’t end up using student loans after all!

23. Don’t Make Hasty Decisions

It’s during the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep that your brain connects that instant replay to other relevant ideas. REM sleep is good for problem solving and decision making because your brain is putting the pieces together and trying out new alternatives. You gain insights that wouldn’t occur to you when you’re awake. So don’t make hasty decisions, wait until you’ve had time to sleep on it.

24. Become a Mentor

There are so many kids and young adults who may never live out their dreams. No matter how smart they are — some just don’t have the right opportunities. Mentorship is one of the best ways we can give back to the community and to the world at large.

When I started Aspire-Canada, and reached out personally to some of the world’s best and brightest leaders to become mentors, I wanted to give back to society. I thought about my two boys who had just lost their father. They would now need male role models throughout life. I went to my pediatrician and asked him how I would raise two young boys alone and he said to me “find male role models for them.” Mentorship can be a game-changer in people’s lives.

25. Remember That in Helping Others You Help Yourself

Some of the leaders and best business minds that I reached out in setting up Aspire-Canada, have helped me grow both personally and professionally. Dave Kerpen, CEO of Likeable Social and bestselling author of “The Art of People: 11 People Skills that Will Get You Everything You Want” is a great example. He was one of my earliest supporters, and his people skills are truly extraordinary. Its no wonder he is the #1 LinkedIn Influencer of all time — ahead of Bill Gates, Jack Welch, Mark Cuban, and former President Barack Obama.

26. Develop the Right Relationships With the Right People

Read Dave Kerpen’s book (see above) to get further insights on how to do this. As Dave mentioned in an interview I did with him : “Networking is awesomely powerful! The key difference though, in the way most people network versus the way you should network is: The best networkers look to figure how how they can help the people in the room, and add the most value, NOT how the people in the room can help them.”

27. Take Care of Those Less Fortunate

When you’re in a state of bliss, you tend to see happiness all around you, even in the mundane. However, when you’re in deep pain and sorrow, you realize how much pain and sorrow there is. After my husband died, I heard so many stories about other young men who died suddenly, leaving behind young families. I realized that my own healing would come by reaching outward not inward.

28. Find Joy in a Hobby or Activity

Hobbies and activities that you enjoy are a great way of connecting with friends. Hobbies give you a way to take your mind off the stressors of everyday life. They allow you to relax and seek pleasure in activities that aren’t associated with work, chores or other responsibilities.

29. See the World Around You

There’s a big vast world waiting to be discovered. Discover new places, cultures and cuisine. You can never really fully appreciate how others live until you’ve seen it first hand. See glaciers, the arctic, polar bears. Visit some of the most, exotic, remote places.

30. Go on a Road Trip

Its totally worth it. Drive across the country. Explore national parks, canyons, lakes and mountains. Go to Vegas.

31. Lifelong Learning Is Important

Lifelong learning is essential. Never stop learning new things.

32. Spend Time With Your Family

Have you read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air? Every minute you have with family is a blessing and comfort.

33. Handle a Stressful Event or Personal Crisis With Dignity

I worked on a case study for the Harvard Business Review on this. Its always better, in a professional situation to also consider the needs of the environment you’re in. If you need extra time to deal with a divorce, care of a loved one or personal illness, its always best to communicate your needs.

34. Have a Personal Mission

Outline a personal mission for yourself—or risk endlessly comparing yourself to others, which will not only be a major distraction, but will also make you miserable. My personal mission is helping young professionals and young widows (among other goals I have).

35. Build a Platform to Help Spread Your Mission

So lets say you’ve outlined your mission and you want to change the world. You will need a platform to do it. Whether its an author platform or a business platform — you need to start thinking about building one now.

36. Get the Important Things Right

Build a platform that is truly representative of your brand. Don’t focus too much on social media and the number of followers. That doesn’t necessarily translate into impact. Your platform isn’t your social media account.

37. Set Actionable New Years Resolutions

With 2018 beckoning at our doors, I’ve been doing some thinking about new years resolutions. Every new year is a new beginning. Setting actionable goals is essential to achieving them. Smaller, bite-sized goals are easier to conquer than very large, harder to achieve targets.

38. Make the Holidays Count

The holidays can be a time of renewal and also making an impact on the lives of those less fortunate. Many people volunteer or donate gifts for children in need. Whatever it is, make someone else smile during the holiday season.

39. Truly Live Within Each Moment

Live each moment like its your last. Nothing is guaranteed in life.

40. It Is true — Marriage Is Really a Beautiful Thing

If you’re married — hug your spouse. I still think weddings are the most romantic things ever. And I’ve been quoted about involving your kids in the wedding (if you’re marrying and have kids). But truly, new research shows that married people are less likely to suffer from dementia and Alzheimers — it can cut your risk by as much as 60%!

Keisha Blair is the Co-founder of Aspire-Canada, a mentorship organization for young professionals. She has been featured in the Harvard Business Review, the New York Times and many other publications. She is currently working on a memoir.

My Husband Died at 34—Here Are 40 Life Lessons I Learned From It