05/25/2012 02:10 pm ET Updated Jul 25, 2012

Etan Patz and 5 Lessons That Loss Can Teach

I was living in New York in 1979 when Etan Patz disappeared, and it changed my life forever. I knew his uncle, who was a fellow rabbi, and I remember how the shock of his disappearance reverberated throughout the Jewish community, then all of New York as pictures of his beautiful, smiling face suddenly appeared on walls and telephone poles and milk cartons everywhere you looked. It was as if the raw terror his family experienced somehow touched us all -- the frantic casting about for any shred of evidence he might still be alive, the aching, hollow pain of never knowing, of waiting day after day, week after week, month after month, until time stretched numbingly into forever.

It was as if we all were confronted with just how fragile and unpredictable, unjust and cruel life could be for any one of us, at any time. An innocent child, a parent who did what all of us have done, simply allowed her child to walk to the bus stop for the first time, and had her very life ripped from her heart and soul. Someone once said having a child is choosing to have your heart run around outside your body for the rest of your life. Who among us could go on living with that doubt, that searing loss, that unimaginable pain?

So Etan Patz disappeared, and it changed my life. As I struggled to fathom even a shadow of the pain his family was enduring, I was brought face to face with my own private, unresolved nightmare of the death of my father when I was only 4 years old. The pain of my childhood loss suddenly became something I could no longer deny, and I made a vow to turn my own life-long struggle to learn how to live with grief and loss into lessons that would guide the rest of my life. And these are the five life principles I chose:

1. Measure time not in minutes, or hours, or years, measure time in lessons learned and lives touched. What matters in your life is not how long it is, but what you do everyday, every hour, every breath of your life.

2. The most important challenge is not learning how to live after death, it's learning how to live after birth. This life is the workshop of our souls.

3. Be like the character from the Broadway hit "Rent." who sings, "There is no future, there is no past, I live each moment as my last." Focus on who you are, on what you say, on how you act, and the values that you cherish. Be still in the morning when you wake and find your meaning and your purpose before you start every day.

4. Live each day as if this is the question you will be asked when you die, "You were given life, what did you do with it?"

5. Choose to embrace the challenge of living every moment with the awareness of just how precious the gift of this day truly is. Then every day of your life will be a day worth living and life itself will be the blessing it was meant to be.

Learning to live with loss is perhaps the fundamental challenge that every human being must face. It is the challenge to live through our experiences of loss and find the strength to embrace life fully in spite of our grief, in spite of our tragedies, in spite of our sorrows. It is to know that being human is to triumph over despair and believe that the meaning of life is to live each day in such a way so that what we day matters, what we do matters, and who we are matters in the lives of others.