08/17/2012 10:45 am ET Updated Oct 17, 2012

When Mentoring Never Ends

Being an educator sometimes places you in the right place at the right time. Ten years ago I got to know several students at the college where I was working and had the privilege of mentoring them as they earned their degrees. Though none of us are still at the college, or living in the same place, we have kept in contact with one another.

Last week I received an email that greatly impacted me. Though it has been more than seven years since we have seen one another, this student returned seeking answers where none could possibly satisfy. At the urging of friends and colleagues I am sharing the email, as well as my response, in the hopes that it may offer perspective if your life seems overwhelming -- and bring some comfort in these difficult and challenging times.

Hi Dr. S.,

Have you ever heard anyone use the phrase "I'm in a funk"? It's the only appropriate description that I can come up with at the moment to describe my life.

It has been a tough summer. I lost two friends at the theatre shooting in Aurora. In June my best friend and two others from high school died in a DWI. The week of the Aurora event both my uncle and godmother also passed away. Then this past Saturday my good friend from back home -- we went to high school together, and he had recently moved out here -- died from a drug overdose.

You're always good with optimistic words and thoughts... got any? Because I most certainly don't, and I really need some.

Death is a separation that seems so final to us as we struggle in life to adjust to the loss. While some grief is tempered by a long and well-lived life, so many of the deaths confronting you right now appear senseless -- lives taken too soon and abruptly. It is at these times we can feel overwhelmed by the darkness, finality, and tragedy of death. It is at these low ebbs of life that we confront the separateness of each living creature; we are alone, suffocating from the oppressive gloom of close friends and relatives torn too soon from your life.

So far not too optimistic, I know, but an acknowledgment of the extraordinary condition you find yourself. Still, even in this complete sense of loss and darkness -- this is when we can truly find our way to a new appreciation for the preciousness of each day. Days tend to pass by in fleeting moments that make it far too easy to take them for granted. When we lose someone -- especially when we lose eight someones -- it is an opportunity to cherish the hours, minutes, and seconds we have each day as we carry on with our own life's journey without their companionship.

I truly believe in the eternity of the soul. Therefore, I believe your family and friends still exist; they just do so in a manner I do not yet fully comprehend nor can I fully appreciate. I can, however, celebrate their souls' enduring nature. I can dedicate a portion of my remaining life in honor of the joy knowing them brought me; I can savor the pleasures of life all the more because I do so not just for me but also for the family and friends who came before me, shared some of life with me, and now have moved ahead of me to prepare and await for my arrival once I cease to exist in this mortal phase. My family and friends who have died are on their own adventure on the eternal plane while I am on my adventure on this earthly plane. I take up the mantle of responsibility to "suck the marrow" from this life not just for me but in memory and honor of those I have loved who have passed through this earth before me.

You are facing the harsh reality that life does end -- we are not immortal here. But you have also been given the opportunity to treasure the moments of life that present themselves to you each and every day for the rest of your life. Your departed family and friends would want you to live life to your fullest potential -- not just for you but in memory of them. The weight of their memory isn't a heavy burden... it is a gift to you, representative of their love for you.

I hope the sun is out tomorrow. That you get out in it and feel a gentle breeze upon your cheek. That you hear a bird's song, and hear the laughter inside a babbling brook. That a cloud may pass by in a familiar shape, causing you to smile. May all these things happen -- and when each one does it reminds you of the love each fallen friend shared with you, offered to you, and wishes for you every day. For now their memory may bring tears. That is OK and normal. The tears wash away the pain they endured in life and slowly remove the stain of sorrow you feel for them and for your loss of them. Soon the tears will slow and happier memories can be preserved to carry with you as your life's journey continues.

Please remember you are not alone. There are millions of other lives all around you. Each a person feeling happiness and sadness, each a person you may have the opportunity to meet, to know, to share a burden with, to like and/or to love.

Keep facing forward and stepping toward tomorrow. You never know what joy may be waiting for you around the very next corner. Go out tomorrow and see what you can discover of the wonders of this world. The possibilities are limitless -- all you have to do is take that next step and open your arms and heart to what may come your way.

My thoughts and prayers are with you. Take care, Dr. S.

For more by Dr. Stephen Schoonmaker, click here.

For more on death and dying, click here.