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At almost thirty-four years old, I have watched my parents bury and grieve the loss of their own parents. I have watched close friends lose loved ones in tragic ways. Most recently, I am wrestling with the finality that comes with death as my family and I grieve the loss of my aunt—my dad’s oldest living sister, Carolyn.

My Aunt Carolyn (lovingly known as AC to me and my siblings) was a bright, beautiful force in the world. AC was a second mother to me; my brother, sister, and I would not be the people we are today without her support and encouragement. She was fiercely loyal to her family and friends. As a prosecutor, she was a fighter in the courtroom, protecting the rights of children and the vulnerable. Passionate about her beliefs and ideas, she never made others feel less than if they disagreed with her. Aunt Carolyn knew how to celebrate life and lived it to the fullest. She was passionate and creative; both a lady and a warrior.

She was everything I want to become as a woman.

At the end of June, we learned my aunt’s hard-fought battle with cancer was coming to an end. On July 13, her soul left this world and we began to maneuver life without her in it. In the almost two weeks she lived in hospice, I was able to see her almost every day. We talked about memories and laughed. I held her hand and was able to say goodbye, telling her how much I loved her. I promised her we would all watch over and take good care of her husband, my Uncle Bob.

And while I have a lifetime of rich memories and lessons from her, those last days of her life in hospice taught me the power of a life well-lived.

Don’t wait to follow your dreams.

I think sometimes for women there is an unspoken lie that only when you have someone to share your life with can you most fully enjoy all life has to offer you. But my aunt got married later in life, and that never stopped her from living life to the fullest.

I remember once Aunt Carolyn telling me she went and bought herself a fancy china set as a single woman. Whether she married or not, why should she wait to have pretty dishes of her own? This always struck me.

I learned from Aunt Carolyn to take the dreams and passions I have as a single woman and pursue them now! We don’t need to wait for Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome to live our one beautiful life right now.

My aunt’s life was a testament to today’s single young women to host that dinner party. Backpack through Europe. Start that podcast. Learn how to surf. Write that book. Go to the wedding solo, and dance your face off. Serve in your community. Be a good neighbor. Run that marathon. Take that cooking class.

Her life taught me that the time to be brave and step outside your comfort zone is right now. This thinking equipped my aunt to have a full life despite cancer taking her too soon.

Love your people well.

I can think of few people who loved others more than my aunt. Unable to have children of her own, she faithfully doted on her many nieces and nephews. When my grandparents were aging and eventually dying, Aunt Carolyn was their advocate and led the family charge in taking care of Grandma and Grandpa.

She gave me some of the most encouraging, loving advice in the face of my worst relationship struggles. She knew how to say the right thing when you were feeling sad, lonely, or scared. AC would challenge you in love when needed—firmly, but always gently.

Famous for making good drinks (especially a Cosmo), Aunt Carolyn was the life of the party. She knew how to champion and celebrate the people in her life, any and everything was a celebration with her.

The beautiful witness of my aunt loving those around her well taught me to never wait to say I love you. Make that phone call. Write that note just to let someone know you are thinking of them. Laugh and cry together. Show up when it is easy and comfortable. More importantly, show up when it is hard and messy. Waste time on meaningful relationships because at the end of life, that is what matters most.

You can do hard things.

My aunt was a woman of valor; strong and tough in the face of suffering or adversity. She never complained when battling cancer, even when she was in great pain.

Her outlook in the face of the unexpected was one of serenity and trust. No matter what happened, she believed there was a purpose for it all, even if it didn’t make sense to her in the present.

During her final weeks and days in hospice, my aunt never complained; she never lost hope. I remember throughout her chemotherapy treatments over the years, she said she saw them as comparable to taking blood pressure medicine. It was what she may have to do the rest of her life to be healthy. While chemo is notoriously painful, her peace in the face of these trials reflected a desire to live each day to the fullest.

This is perhaps the most compelling way Aunt Carolyn taught me I can do hard things in my life. I have conquered many hard things, and there will most certainly be more to come. But I know they make me a stronger, more refined version of myself. I am a better person because of the hard things in my life. And her life is a model to mine because she endured the hard things in hers.

We all will face pain, confusion, and suffering in life. There will be loss and sadness. But the resilience of the human spirit is a beauty to behold. While we are not responsible for the things that happen to us, we are responsible for our response to heal and grow from them.

Watching and listening to my aunt was an education in itself. But perhaps the most powerful lessons she taught me was in her dying. And those final lessons are the ones I want to carry on most in my own life.

In the shadow of her loss, I am comforted knowing how I live the rest of my life can be a living memorial to the beautiful life my aunt lived. And like you always told us AC, I’ll see you when I see you.