Ten years ago, my little sister died. Kristen was 21 when she was killed in a car accident driving home on an icy road.
She had been collecting her things from the university where she had decided to drop out from her midwifery studies. It was a painful decision but Kristen had ADHD and found it difficult to connect with clients, organize her schedule, and navigate city streets to get to births and postpartem appointments.
She had just failed at the thing she had wanted since she was in high school. And then her life was over.
So often, we think that the success of a human life is to be measured in achievement. What have we accomplished? What have we earned? What works have we left behind? We think our existence has to be justified by our abilities and actions.
Kristen did not achieve very much in this sense, and if you used that as the plot of her life, you could write a gritty, early modernist play about the futility of human existence. But that play would be a lie. The value of a human life is not measured in our successes, not even in the fulfillment of our own dreams and goals.
In her last journal entry Kristen wrote: “I struggle with who I am. Life is so full of beauty and tragedy. Where do I fit in? What I do and where I go feels so separate from who I am. Yet who I am is so strongly affected by those things. I rejoice at the beauty and love of the people around me, and I mourn my loss when we are separated. Those people become a part of who I am.”
Everyone who has ever lost someone young has this truth engraved on their heart: that simply being, being loved, loving, makes a human life important. Even those who have been truly abandoned by others are loved into being by God – not just at the moment of conception, but at every moment of life – and this relationship gives immeasurable value to their existence.
And it doesn’t end in death.
Kristen wrote, “To be without time must be wonderful. To be connected and joyful and surrounded by the beauty and love of God. I can see the beauty of heaven. I hate the divisions forced on us by our imperfectness. I can’t wait for the day when it is all behind us.”
Heaven was, for her, a place of complete connectedness – a place where it would no longer be necessary to lose people, to say goodbye. It was the place where God’s love would make her identity, her “who I am,” permanent and eternal.
The beauty of existence flows from this eternal destiny. Our lives are not ordered towards getting a better job, a good marriage, a happy retirement, or even length of days. My sister understood this. She was engaged to be married, and yet she wrote about how she knew that marriage and even children wouldn’t completely fulfill her – that only Christ could do that.
One of the greatest things that I learned from Kristen I didn’t completely “get” until years after her death: it is that we accomplish so much – even in a worldly sense – just by being ourselves.
Kristen inspired my sister Alicia to become a midwife, and my daughter Agnes to pursue the same career. My sister Jamie is now working to bring better prenatal care to women in Tanzania. I always feel Kristen there as a helping presence when I give birth. In the week after she died, a friend of the family helped her dog give birth to a puppy that was being born breech – she said she felt Kristen guiding her.
Kristen struggled to know who she was, what her place was, yet at the same time she knew that her place was not, ultimately, in this world. Yet even in this world the blessing, the beauty, the gift of her existence bears fruit even though she is gone. She has become a part of who we all are.
The simple act of just being the person God made her to be made the world better in ways that she couldn’t have foreseen or guessed. Even though in that moment, on that highway, driving home, it must have felt like failure, my sister’s life was a success.