The Gifts We Give, The Gifts We Are

Thursday, June 8, 2017 - 4:48 pm

The Gifts We Give, The Gifts We Are

My friend Katie found her person. After many years of raising her three girls with a proverbial village of family and friends, but no partner, she met an amazing man with three sons of his own, a man who loved nurturing people. They got engaged to be married this summer. They renovated her house to reflect their new blended family and life together. And then, just moments after doing a yoga class side by side, he had a sudden heart attack and died. Katie had to reschedule the tent they had rented for the wedding to be used for her person’s funeral.

The loss is unimaginable. It’s ineffable. And yet Katie found the strength to write this on Facebook just days later:

My friend Holly told me this: We get to keep the gifts he gave us. 

There is not a single doubt that we mostly just wanted to keep him. We want to keep everything about him. The neighbors want him to clean the garage (again) and throw the football with the boys, passing on an emboldening word about the importance of a losing season. The old/new friend wants to keep the only person who has truly known her from childhood to adulthood, words rendered unnecessary. We want him to be the consummate host, glasses never empty, plates full, ice in full effect, ginger beer on tap. We want to hear him sing and play the guitar, out of the shower after yoga while the sweat dries, or before dinner to transition the day. We want him to guide us, love us, cook with us, counsel us, encourage us, do for us. I want him to send me a one word text ‘tug’ to let me know he’s with me all day while we’re apart. I want his face on the pillow, silent still sleeper, and reach out my toes to encircle his. 

But we don’t get this, these daily pleasures. These minute pleasures of his existence, these moments of sublime and sweet nowness. 

We want him in our futures. We want him tonight before bed, tomorrow for dinner, at our games, at the lake, at the beach, in Iceland scoping a new hotel, in Idaho (this week). We want him at graduations, at weddings, at our wedding god help us. We want him to help us move, to pay the toll, to send the grades, to answer the phone, to share our successes with each other. We want to attend the opening of the gorgeous, nearly-killed-you renovation in Providence, tribulation and glory in built form. We want the mentorship, the teaching, the guiding and encouraging. I want the grand babies, our grand babies, I want those babies to have him, changing the essence and fabric of their souls. 

We don’t get this future, seemingly ordained, seemingly necessary, of this man, gift to play with us, to embolden us and countless others. 

We get the memories, the lessons, the photos, the facts of him. We get our love, our heartache, the impossibility, the absolute unreal made reality. 

But, says Holly, we get to keep the gifts he gave us. The gifts he gave us. For me, he gave me himself, he gave me the gift of himself, his full self. He gave me his stories, his history, his people, his loves, his heroes. He gave me his enthusiasm, his happiness, his joy, his words, his writing. He gave me the love that burned for his children, his sons, my daughters, Blissabeth, the neighbors’ kids, the friends, kids, the nephews and nieces, or just about any dog. He gave me his evolution, his journey, his getting closer to himself. He gave me myself, fully re-presented, in three dimensions or many more. He gave me the fullness of myself, adored in my glory and my imperfection, perfect all, somehow miraculously, in his eyes. He gave me the gift of my children, the time and space and support to parent and to love. He gave me countless dinners and eggs for breakfast and glasses of water, nourished, cared for, supported, loved and held. He made a safe haven for us all to be bold. He gave me back my children, reborn with fresh eyes of the light of his adoration. At home and in the world, he gave me the fullness of me. 

Would I trade, could I trade? This present, this future, this past, for these gifts? Luckily, I suppose, he didn’t give us the privilege and burden of choosing. I fear I would trade the present, and I know I would trade anything for that future, even perhaps these lasting gifts. I would seemingly give up any gift for another morning, another song, another walk to the train, one more minute. But he left us this last gift, of not choosing against ourselves, of insisting on the sanctity of his way. His way of recognizing and insisting on celebrating the fullness of who we are, seen by him, but not for him. Held up in his light, but with no strings, no attachments to outcomes, no present, no future, just being. 

It’s a cruel gift, perhaps, an impossible gift to receive, to honor and to keep. But he gave, and gave so freely and so generously, that we can only weep, in sadness, but with no regret. In memory, but no anger. 

We are changed. I am changed. I am more myself for his love. That is the gift he gave me.

I share it with you, not so you will feel sorry for Katie or fear losing your own person, though I know that’s easy to do. But I share it with you because it is such a stunning piece of writing — the kind of writing that can only come from a very deep, unencumbered place, the kind of writing that is only possible from a human being so stripped down by grief that she can’t help but tell the truth about who we are and what actually matters.

It made me think about the gifts I give on a daily basis — some intentional, some just the inevitable byproducts of who I am temperamentally. Usually, I read something like this and start thinking about the areas in my life where I want to be more intentional and the friends I want to reach out to more. But reading Katie’s words about this incredible man had a surprising effect on me. I felt at peace. I felt that whatever I am already doing for the people I love, whoever I am already being, is the gift. I’m sure I could do it better, more lovingly, with less irritation, but that’s not the point. The point is being myself, spending real time, and giving permission to those I love to be themselves. That insight, however long I can hold on to it, is Katie’s gift to me.

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is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    Thank you for sharing Katie’s shining words here. With your introduction they would have stood fine, beautiful and full, quite on their own.
    Katie, from my own experience of loss I understand so well that I am more myself for the love he gave me and the love I felt.
    Those that are this to us will, so luckily, fill our hearts until the end of our days. I know the pain too, though. Best to you and the kids.

  • Two lovely pieces of writing, Katie’s and yours. I feel the peace and send it back to you with love.

  • missioli

    Beautifully written 💔 As the widow of an amazing man, I fully relate to the lesson in Katie’s essay.
    And, even though my husband is no longer of this world, I continue to welcome his gifts of self knowledge and self discovery.

    My deepest condolences to all who are touched by the shadow of Death 🙏🏽

  • Margaret B

    Thank you. Almost 11 years now, on our 31st wedding anniversary, I became a widow. My own wonderful, giving husband died from Type 1 Diabetes at 53 — diagnosed at age 7. I remain thankful for the gifts he left me, his children, and his friends and other family members. Thanks to Katie for reminding me to resurrect that gratitude more often.

  • Kathy

    Katie has touched me in the deep place of grief and gratitude for “my person” that the passage of time sometimes dulls. Thank you for bringing it back with force and clarity. I am so sorry for your loss and grateful for your sharing.

  • CrummyVerses

    I consider myself to be deeply judgemental…about almost anything! But this freed me up a bit. “That insight, however long I can hold on to it, is Katie’s gift to me.” Both Katie’s and yours. Even now as I type I’m able to set aside any judgements about either one of you, and I too feel (traces of) peace. Thank you.

    I lost a cousin this week who OD’d on pain meds. A youngster at 47 he had knee pain most of his adult life and took pills regularly. I’m still in a bit of shock over this. But with traces of peace I can offer myself at least somewhat fully to those more closest to him at his funeral in 3 days. Thank you again.

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  • Rebecca Lynn

    This is magnificent. Thank you for sharing. In my own life, I often return to the epitaph exercise – what would you want your epitaph to say – as a way of reminding myself to live as best I can; and I’ll certainly return to this when I do.

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  • sunnyside

    This, not the overnight news of whatever Trump has dine to our democracy, is what matters. This. Pure, unadulterated human opennness, making space for connection. Thank you.

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