On Grief, Loss, and Living Life

A few days ago, the Broadway community was shocked and saddened by the death of Kyle Jean-Baptiste. Kyle was a 21-year-old actor, who'd recently made his Broadway debut in Les Miserables playing Courfeyrac and understudying Jean Valjean. When he went on as Jean Valjean, he became the youngest person and the first ever African-American to play the role on Broadway.

However, Kyle was more than just a record-breaking Broadway actor. As his Twitter bio states, he was a "literal teddy bear." His cast mates and friends described him as being enthusiastic, kind, and passionate. The theatre community, and the world, has lost an incredible soul.

I never met Kyle, though we did follow each other on Twitter and he actually favorited a tweet of mine just last week. We'd talked before about how I would love to see him in a show on my next trip to New York City and his dreams of playing John in Miss Saigon. The news of his death hit me very personally and made me reflect on my life. Kyle was only a few months older than I am now and seemed like someone who was destined for future greatness. I'd been looking forward to watching him grow as a performer and hoped to meet him at stage door for his next show. I cannot begin to imagine the pain that his family and friends are feeling now. And I do not envy Ramin Karimloo, who had to sing "Bring Him Home," the night of the death of his young friend and cast mate.

In truth, I've been reflecting about life and death a lot this summer. In June, my grandmother--my Memaw--passed away. It was somewhat sudden. While her heath had been failing for years, she'd been moved out of the hospital and into assisted living following another health concern. We visited her on a Friday afternoon and she seemed her usual self, if a bit frustrated with being surrounded by people in far worse condition than her. She watched my sister do her recital dances, looked through photos from Scotland on my phone, and laughed and joked as always. Little did I know that day that it would be the last time I talked to her or hugged her. 

That following Monday morning, she passed away suddenly. Her body simply gave out. My parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins gathered at the rest home that day to say goodbye to her one last time. The next weeks flew by with funeral preparations, a funeral service where I felt farther from her than I ever had, and cleaning out her house. 

In cleaning out her house, I learned what a truly incredible woman my Memaw was. Despite being raised in a family with significant wealth, she was never snobbish. Indeed, she was one of the least prejudiced people I've met in my lifetime. She was in pageants and school plays and was a very stylish lady. She had an incredible love affair with my granddaddy and she doted on her many grandchildren. She had lived her life to the fullest. She had seen her children married and her grandchildren born. In fact, she'd even gotten to see most of her grandchildren married and starting families of their own. While I'm disappointed that she won't get to see me graduate from college, from a school so important to her family, I know she will be with me in spirit. 

The thing I've learned about grief is that it doesn't necessarily get any easier. There are still moments when I forget that she's passed and think, "Oh I'll have to tell Memaw about this the next time I talk to her" or assume that she'll be at our house for the next family gathering before suddenly remembering. My heart goes out to Kyle Jean-Baptiste's parents and siblings, for I too know the feeling of dreading Christmas because of the heartache it will bring from the absence of a loved one. 

In the past few days, reflecting on the frailty of life, I've been reminded of two things. The first is to never forget to tell people that you love them and appreciate them. Life is beautiful and terrible, but most of all, it is unpredictable. It is impossible to know when someone you love will be taken from you. Don't hesitate to let people know how you feel, whether it's your parents, your best friend, or the teacher who changed your life. It's better to stumble over your words or risk sounding repetitive than to have regrets. 

The second thing that my Memaw and Kyle have taught me is to live life with passion and love. My grandmother always had a smile for everyone she met. She was quick to tell you that you were her favorite person (yes, we grandchildren all realized that we could not possibly each be her favorite grandchild and yet, we appreciated hearing it). Even the people who worked at her bank were sad to hear of her passing and reminisced how friendly and warm she'd been. 

Kyle had an incredible passion for theatre and a light that he spread to those around him. In his 21 tragically short years, he accomplished so much, including one of his life dreams. His untimely death made me question if I'm living the life that I should be. So often, it's easy to live with the thought process of "It will get better later" or "I might not like my life now, but it'll be better in a few years." I know I've sunken into a "life will be better once you're done with school" mindset. But you can't count on those years being there.

In short: Do what you want to be doing. Spread love freely. Tell people what they mean to you. Live in a way that would leave you with few regrets were you to find out it was your last year. 

My heart goes out to Kyle's family, friends, and all those who knew him. If you would like, you can donate to Kyle's alma mater for a scholarship in his name. 

**The person who filmed the video above was encouraged to share it by Kyle Jean-Baptiste when he was told about it at stage door. He wanted to put his name out there to advance his career and give him more opportunities. It seems only fitting to share it, in hopes that his name and incredible accomplishments will not be forgotten despite his only living 21 years. 
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