What Remains After We’re Gone

About two weeks ago, my dad suddenly passed away. Almost exactly 11 years after my mom. That loss created a certain pressure, where in between the grief, it also pointed to what really matters in life.

Please note that I am well supported in my grief, with family, good friends, an amazing community, and counselling. I only share this as a note to myself, and maybe as a potential spark for those of you reading to examine your remaining time in life.

The question I find myself asking is — when we are gone, what is it that remains?

If I look back over my mom’s and dad’s life, and also take into consideration over 150 interviews I conducted as part of my initial search for meaning, three things stood out as a measure of a meaningful life. Not always a happy one, but one that was meaningful.


From the moment you take your first breath, you are in the presence of others. Over the course of a lifetime, you will fall in and out of relationships with family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and even people you pass on the street.

Those relationships, and how you relate to others will define much of your life. They will determine whether your kids will talk to you when you are in your last days, the doors to opportunities others will open for you, as well as the people who will be around you when you go through tough times or celebrate with you when you reach a goal.

Some questions I am reflecting on now are: What kind of relationships am I creating with my closest circle? Who is in my closest circle? Who have I kept out? How do I show up for my immediate family and close friends? How do I support them when they need support? Do I listen when they need me to listen? Am I a safe harbour for them?

Both my parents kept friends across decades and across continents. They formed lasting bonds with good people. My dad would often tell me that he would go for coffee with one of his bosses from 15 years ago, co-workers from 10 years ago, as well as his university friends when he would travel back home.

As I write this, I am thinking about the kind of relationship I want to have with my wife, my daughter, and which friends can I let in some more.

The Impact you’ve had

Stepping back out from close relationships, you will have crossed paths with all kinds of people — in school, at events, at work, through acquaintances. Just by virtue of existing, you’ve had some kind of impact on them. Maybe it was barely noticeable, and maybe it was life-changing. You could have changed someone’s day just by acknowledging them.

My parents would often go out of their way to help others. From donations to various charities, to cooking for refugees, to giving whatever they could to whoever was in need. They would make sure others always felt welcome at our home, and in our lives.

The questions I’m asking myself are: How do I make people feel when they meet me? How do I treat people I work with, people that serve me coffee, people at the service counter when I return something at a store, the other parents I meet at school? What kind of contributions am I making through the way I interact with other people?

My absolutely favourite shirt of all time, which I refuse to throw away, has “Positive Impact” boldly written on the front. It is what I aspire to in all areas of life — to have as positive of an impact as I can on the people and the world around me. 

However, I often fail. I get mired in the unimportant aspects of work and life, and invest time and effort into pursuits that don’t really matter at the end. As I write this, I am looking over the remainder of this year, and into next year — and considering the things I planned, the goals I created, the commitments I made, and whether they align with the impact I want to have had.

Meaningful artifacts

If you ever lost someone close, you likely had to deal with the physical things that remain. Among the linens, dishes, furniture and other things — there are also things that hold tremendous emotional and meaningful value, that may not be measurable objectively.

Meaningful artifacts are things infused with love and essence. For myself, it is things that my parents made or wrote. I still have most of the birthday and Christmas cards they sent me over the years, along with various bits and pieces of advice. 

In her later years, my mom picked up oil and acrylic painting. In my house, we have several of her paintings, and they remind me of the kind of person she was. She would also regularly give her art away to friends, and others who showed interest.

My dad was less creatively prolific, but he did like to build things — from voltage regulators to furniture. He would take on coding challenges, and he loved learning how to fly fish. The artifacts he leaves behind are the memories, photos of our outdoor adventures, and many voice messages he would leave me anytime I didn’t answer the phone.

I hope his advice and support will resonate within me when I face tough times.

Questions I am asking myself are: What kind of things am I creating that will remain after I’m gone? What can I build, write, paint, or record that will have some kind of positive impact on the people in my closest circle, or resonate with those who share similar values? What is something I can create that is a true and honest expression of myself? What is something my daughter might find meaningful when I’m gone?

These are the things that are true for me. Maybe they are true for you as well, and maybe you will look at the rest of your time in a different way. I know I am.

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