On our drive back home from Utah, my Aunt Jan passed away from cancer. As I drove through the desert landscape of scraggly shrubs and the evergreen tree-lined mountains, I thought about all of my loved ones who died and what things they taught me through living their life and/or their death.

1. I am not impervious to dealing with grief. I wouldn’t say that I’ve gone through all seven of the stages of grieving with each death, but I have been angry, sad, and depressed. I’ve also developed another neurosis. I’m afraid that my husband will die young and leave me to live my golden years without him. Sometimes, this fear is so overwhelming my eyes will fill with tears, or I will lie awake at night until the wee hours of the morning. I have to constantly remind myself that he is alive now and to not fret over the future.

2. Live with passion. You might not have tomorrow. My cousin Julie who died at 38, loved life and didn’t apologize for not living the way others thought she should. In college, she interned at the National Archives, lived in one of the poorest sections of D.C., and volunteered to teach kids about spiders–tarantula’s to be exact, even though they terrified her at first. She loved it. I remember her telling me about the time a lady took the shoes of Julie’s feet while riding the city bus to the archives. She figured the lady needed them more. So, she walked to work barefoot and bought another pair on her lunch break.

3. Love others. My Aunt Suzy (Julie’s mom) enjoyed making people feel warm and welcomed in her home. Although, she was a crazy busy single mom for a long period of her life, she would always make time for our family and feed us incredible dishes of comfort food. From my child like perspective, I thought it was because she loved to cook, but when I was older she told me it was because feeding people was one of the ways she could show her love for them. The other thing I remember about her is her megawatt smile. The energy from it could have provided a small country with lights for a year. You couldn’t help but smile back and you knew that she loved and cherished you.

4. Laugh often. This one comes from my Aunt Jan. Her and my mom would often do things that were unintentional mistakes. For instance, one day they were following my uncle and were chattering away unaware that they were following the wrong car until my uncle pulled up beside them. Instead of freaking out, or getting mad at themselves, they laughed and saw the humor in the situation. It’s not the best example, but it’s the only one that comes to mind now. Even when I saw my aunt this last week, when she could barely breathe and she had to stop to take extra breaths, she found the humor in her circumstances.

5. Be more compassionate. My Aunt Jae who lived with my family from the time I was five was the epitome of this lesson. When she was in her last months of cancer she lived in a nursing home. There was this lady who every ten minutes would yell for help. Not because she needed it, but because she was confused, disoriented, and afraid. One day, this lady had called out more than usual and the nurses were no longer responding as quickly. The woman became more upset and frantic. My aunt who had bone cancer and suffered immense pain, lifted her aching body out of her chair, went to the woman, and tried to comfort her.

6. Live your dream. My mother in law didn’t pass away from cancer, but two and a half years ago she died unexpectedly, leaving us stunned and immensely sad. She was a doctor, an Anesthesiologist and she loved it. But to become a doctor, she had to overcome racism and sexism. She was the first African-American female to enter the University program and the male professors were less than enthused to have an “incompetent female N—–” in their classes. She had to face the same hurdles when she interned/worked at the hospital as well. Besides having to face people’s ignorant views, she also was a single mother as well. Where she had to balance being a mother and a doctor. My husband never felt neglected by her and she went on to raise three other children and maintain a practice. To this day, I’m blown away by her ability to stay the course and not let obstacles stop her.

These women have influenced me in many other ways too and I will always be grateful for the ways they blessed my life. Who has influenced you and how did they do it?