Dear __________: A Letter to the Person Who Almost Died (But Didn’t!)

Dear Person Who Almost Died (But Didn’t!),

Wow—you almost died. But you didn’t. You’re still alive. You’re still alive, and you’re reading this right now. I’m genuinely happy that when you almost died, well…you didn’t. Been there, done that, my friend. I’ve got the t-shirt, and it’s not even lousy. It’s a lovely shade of black, which is sort of my jam. I’m so serious right now. I mean it. I’d fist bump you if this weren’t a letter. Yes, I still fist bump, and I’m okay with—no, proud of—that fact.

Let’s get a little real for a moment, though. Because I love you, and I feel like it might be hard for you to be alive right now. At least, there is a good chance that it is was hard, it is hard, or it is going to be hard—and no matter which of those moments you’re in, you matter and that feeling matters.

Much of the time, the movies and the inspirational stories and the general ideology of our culture is that if you almost die but you don’t, it’s all roses and sunbeams and choirs singing in the background. I know that is not the case, my friend. As someone who has woken up in an ICU confused as f**k and with my entire life altered, I get that it’s not always roses and sunbeams and choirs. Yes, sometimes you wake up from almost dying and life is awesome—you lived. You’re thrilled to be alive, and you appreciate life more because of it. I’m not saying that won’t happen (it probably did happen, is happening, or is going to happen). But I sure as hell don’t want you walking around lonely or confused or even angry at yourself because that’s not where you’re at right now.

Here’s what I know about almost dying but not actually dying that you might need to know someone relates to:

  1. You’re going to feel anger—and that’s okay.

If you almost died, but you didn’t, there is a good chance your life is altered in some way—physical, spiritual, emotional, financial, etc. Maybe your body doesn’t work like it used to (and it may never again, or the road to recovery might be long). Maybe your beliefs are brought into question by the circumstances surrounding your brush with death. Maybe your emotions are naturally altered by the trauma you experienced, or maybe, if you’re like me, friend, your emotions are literally altered by damage to your brain (on top of the trauma). Maybe you’re unable to work for a short time, a long time, forever. But your life is altered—and you feel anger. You want to punch walls, you want to scream in churches, you want to fight strangers. In many of those cases, you just want to feel again in a way you’re not able to feel since you didn’t die. And that’s okay, friend. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you unworthy of your own survival. You don’t need to mask that anger (control it the best you can, yes, but mask it? no). Your anger is valid and you are valid and you matter, even if you’re angry.

  1. You’re going to wish you died at some point—and that’s okay.

There is almost nothing more disheartening than almost dying, surviving that trauma, experiencing a moment (or moments) so painful or overwhelming once you lived that you wish you died, and having someone tell you that your reaction is ungrateful or irrational. Survival of a traumatic incident alone does not somehow make you superhuman. You’re not blessed with the ability to go one-hundred percent Zen in the most difficult of moments simply because you happened not to die. That is not how life works, so it can’t be how living works, right? When you arrive home from ICU, lie down in your own bed for the first time, and rock yourself through the first night of intense physical pain, or emotional onslaught or overwhelm at the life you left behind pre-encounter with death, you’re allowed to wish you had died. It’s hard, friend. The act of surviving alone does not make living easy. Don’t let others convince you that you’re doing something wrong. You will find moments of gratefulness (you probably already did, currently are, or eventually will). You are not automatically an irrational creature for wishing, in the throes of survival (which itself is often a difficult process), that you had died. Your reaction is valid and you are valid and you matter, even if you find yourself uttering the words “I wish I had died.”

  1. You’re going to need time to learn to adjust—and that’s okay.

Your situation is entirely different than mine, friend, but I can tell you this—you don’t almost die and wake up fully prepared to face your new life to come. Minor or major, there are changes to face. Changes inherently imply an adjustment period. You may find people have no patience for that reality, which is hard to fathom. As humans, we spend our time preparing for hard times mentally. We envision those hard times in our mind. We imagine how well we will deal with those situations, how brave we will be, how wonderful our inspirational story will be when it is all said and done. Our Lifetime movie is going to be a syndicated television hit, y’all. We’re going to be inspirational as f**k. Likewise, as humans, we spend our time preparing for dealing with others’ hard times mentally. We envision reacting to our loved ones struggles in our mind. We imagine how well we will deal with those situations, how understanding we will be of their emotions (emotions we cannot truly understand), how we will patiently wait by their side as they struggle to return to a place of new normalcy. When we’re actually in the thick of those situations, though, as humans, we often fail. I don’t tell you this to depress you, friend. I tell you this to help you deal with the lack of patience you might be experiencing as you face the road that is survival. Adjustment is necessary and not easy. People will not always be there for you in the way you expected, and it’s important to remember that they are people just like you—meaning that even though it is hurting you, their failure to be there, it is so utterly human. Your necessary adjustment period (however short or long it may be) is valid and you are valid and you matter, even if you’re facing people who don’t yet know how to understand that.

This is not an inspirational poster, my friend. You are not a photograph with a tagline attached. You are not a humpback whale jumping out of the water with a quote about courage transcribed beneath you. What does courage even have to do with whales? Nevermind—that’s another rant for another time. The point is that you’re not that poster. You’re a real human with a real story that has real implications.

Survival is not a moment. Survival is not literally encompassed in the moment your heart tries to stop but does not. Survival is not the first breath after the trauma. Survival, as cliché as it is going to sound, my friend, is a road. And roads tend to suck. Or if they don’t suck, they have moments that make them hard to drive.

Yes, roads have beautiful scenery and gorgeous colors and amazing breezes and interesting people and awesome music. But roads also have speeding tickets and potholes and erratic deer and fender benders and poorly painted dotted lines. Roads are not a moment, though. So, if you almost died but didn’t, friend, know that your survival matters—your survival as a whole and not just the moment your body breathed again. You matter. And…by the way? I’m so stoked that you lived, and I’m so grateful that you’re facing the struggles that sometimes come with that reality.


A Friend

P.S. My wife is concerned that I may have at least one reader that is, actually, a humpback whale. She is worried that I am isolating that humpback whale as a reader. My friend, my humpback whale friend—I love you, too.

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