What death taught me about life

Some memories haunt you. They stay vividly engraved in your mind even when you try to forget them. Let me tell you about one such memory.

It was 20 months ago. The 2nd of April 2012. Thankfully it wasn’t a day earlier as the crushing irony of April Fool’s Day would not have helped. I was cooking dinner. Pasta with cream cheese, bacon and tomatoes. A favourite dish that I haven’t cooked since that day. My cell phone rang. It was a work friend Kate, nothing unusual so far. I expected a gossip session or perhaps a work vent. We have been each others sounding boards for years. This was a different type of call.

Kate told me to come back to work. I hadn’t left long ago, I only live 7 minutes drive from the office. I didn’t ask why. Kate isn’t one for games. If she needed me that was enough. I took the boiling pasta off the stove and told my sister-in-law she’d probably need to finish dinner. I assume she did. I never returned to eat it.

I unlocked the front door of our office and walked through empty lobby towards the stairs. Our general manager Darryl meet me on the landing. “You’re not going to like this” he said. He looked mad, furious even. He turned and walked back up the stairs. I followed. My heart sunk. Immediately my brain put the pieces together and came to the conclusion that Kate and Darryl had been fighting. My mind was racing, What had I done? How was I involved? How much trouble was I in? Lot’s of questions, mostly about myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong. To this day I wish I wasn’t. It would have been better to be fired than what came next.

We reached Kate’s office, not word had been spoken since the stairs. My colleagues Pete and Jeremy were there too. This caught me off guard. I’d been bracing myself for a 2 against 1 fight. I could handle those odds. The advantage was now on the boy’s side. I steeled myself for yelling. But it didn’t come.

I looked at Kate, she’d been crying. Her eyes were bloodshot, her skin was pale. She was sunken like a rag doll in her office desk chair. Still I couldn’t have guessed what I was about to be told. I was suspended in a wonderfully bizarre moment. The final acts of my haunting memory before reality was to come crashing down.

Everyone was looking at me, with a strange emotion. I realised later it was a mixture of grief, disbelief and dread. These four people knew something terrible that they had to tell me. And then we would have to tell others, so many others. Finally after an eternity, which was probably only a few seconds, Darryl spoke three words I will never forget. “Ken’s been killed”. The vividness of my haunting memory stops at this exact moment. A haze descended.

I remember vaguely wanting to throw up, thinking that they were all crazy and that this couldn’t possibly be true. I remember being very confused. I felt removed from body as I started to work through the necessities of letting others know the news. We divided lists of current and past employees and started making calls. I could hear through the phone lines that same disbelief, grief and confusion. How could someone so filled with life possibly be dead?

Ken was our managing director. But for me this always seemed like an understatement. Ken was my mentor, teacher, fan, supporter, inspiration, leader, motivation and friend. He couldn’t be dead. He was more alive than anyone I’d ever meet. He lit up any room he entered. He seemed larger than life itself. Ken was invincible, or so I’d always believed.

Ken was a force of nature. A six foot tall whirlwind who shook up everyone that came in contact. You often heard Ken’s booming voice long before you saw him. He had a physical presence that was hard to miss and a charisma that drew people to him. Ken was fun to be around and always the life of any party. Ken was a shining example on how to live life to the fullest.

Ken was lucky. He always backed winners. He had a sixth sense for roulette and a uncanny knack for landing on his feet. Once he accidentally bet on the wrong horse. It came in first. He won at everything (or bent the rules until he did!). One other time I witnessed him competing in a 3-legged race at a children’s christmas party. He declared the race was forfeited several times, citing obscure rule violations required a rematch. Miraculously, when he and his partner won the next race, it was declared fair and even.

Don’t get the wrong impression. While Ken was fiercely competitive he was also extraordinarily kind and generous. He always backed the long shot and championed the underdog. He believed in the best in people, even when they couldn’t see it themselves. He was prepared to give anyone a second chance as long as they were willing to learn from their mistakes.

When I was 21 years old Ken took a massive gamble on me. Fresh out of university he offered me the opportunity of a lifetime. He took a punt that a part time marketing assistant was ready to make the leap to a management role. Overnight I went from worrying about my exam marks to full responsibility of a multi million dollar marketing budget. It was terrifying. It was fantastic. It changed the course of my life forever.

I’m sure many thought the move was insane, myself included. But Ken’s absolute unwavering belief filled me with the confidence that I lacked. He encouraged me to learn from my mistakes. He dusted me off when I fell and was the first to congratulate me in my successes. But nothing was handed to me. Ken made me work for the opportunity and pushed me to breaking point on more than one occasion.

“Ken’s been killed”. Ever since those three little words I’ve struggled.

I remember thinking “it’s not fair”. Those words played on repeat in my head silently over and over. Sometimes I’d forget for a moment and go to see him and it would crash down on me again. I was angry for a long time. I couldn’t comprehend the unfairness. It was a freak accident. A couple of seconds was the difference between tragedy and Ken continuing to be that “lucky guy”. It was fucking unfair.

Telling people “my boss passed away” seemed like a trivial description. I truly hate that euphemism. Ken was killed. It was a hideous tragedy not some peaceful passing. And Ken wasn’t just a boss. I’m not the only person with a story about how Ken pushed them to become what they were truly capable of. The way Ken changed my life is a bond he shared with hundreds, probably thousands, of others. It was impossible to meet Ken and not be better for it. I feel a great sadness people who never knew Ken will read this. It’s unfair you will never get that chance.

After the night of my haunting memory things became a blur. I didn’t sleep much in the coming two weeks. I threw myself into one last project for Ken, his funeral. It was a welcome distraction and a chance to make it a reflection of the way he lived. It was a full scale stage production. He would have loved the fanfare. Hundreds attended and thousands more watched it on a live stream. It was an emotional, and inspiring, tribute to a great man. In true Ken style it was a extravagant celebration and everyone was welcome.

But after the funeral the emptiness came. I couldn’t keep myself busy or distracted anymore. I had to deal with my pain. And I did, and while I still miss Ken every day, I can take solace that I was fortune enough to have learned so much from him.

I write an advertising blog and since May 2012 I’ve had a draft post called “What would Ken do” taunting me. Ken imparted so much marketing wisdom that I felt a huge responsibility to share this. I just couldn’t make the words stick. Nothing seemed to do him justice.

After 20 months have passed I’ve come to realise the truth. Ken taught me even more in death than in life. While that sentence breaks my heart, I like to think it makes him smile. Even in his tragic death he changed people’s lives for the better.

So what has Ken’s death taught me about living?

1. Stop stressing about stuff that doesn’t matter

You’re healthy, you’re loved, you’re alive. That incredibly urgent report won’t be important next year, next month or even next week. Ken worked incredibly hard. He worked his way from a junior sales position to our managing director. He gave up a lot of family time in the early years. He was talented, studious and determined. But he didn’t ever worry about stupid things. He never took life too seriously. Never forget that you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you react. Keep things in context. The small things don’t really matter.

2. Don’t just seize life, savour it.

Put down your phone. Stop being distracted. The key to a joyful life is engaging fully in each moment. Treasure time with the people that you love. Give them your full and undivided attention. They deserve it. If you don’t one day you will regret it deeply. Ken once explained this to me and gave me the book “The Present” to read. It wasn’t until he was gone that I really understood what he meant.

3. Pain creates strength

You have no idea what you are capable of until you have been pushed to your limit. Ken constantly pushed me professionally but it was the personal challenge of his death and his funeral that tested me far more. The company Ken left behind came together with an incredible strength. I’m privileged to have shared that experience. I’m sure Ken was proud of what was achieved in the year after his death. Try to see adversity as a chance to grow not to hide. Remember the pain will ease, the lessons will remain.

4. Have fun

Ken on a work trip to Japan with employees

The French have an expression that suits Ken perfectly. Joie de vivre — the joy of living. Ken made everything fun. He treated life like his own private party. He understood that work without play is meaningless. My favourite memories of Ken were social gatherings. Like singing Fleetwood Mac loudly (and badly) after a few drinks or arguing on the technicalities of tenpin bowling. I remember those memories clearly. My memories of Ken are seldom related to the hundreds of hours we spent together in meeting rooms.

5. Give generously, without expectation

Your eulogy will not, and should not, be your CV. It will not be limited to your business accomplishments, the deals you won or the clients you closed. What will be remembered are the experiences you shared, the people you moved and the happiness you created. Ken invited almost everyone he met to visit his holiday home, and he was sincere. His position, belongings and wealth were simply tools to create memories with others. He shared generously often, without expectation of repayment.

6. Treat people equally

Ken was hard to miss. He usually announced his own arrival with a bellowing greeting. People were naturally drawn to his charisma. He was successful, influential and important. Yet he took a genuine interest in the people he encountered. He treated everyone from our largest customer to the hotel clerk in the exact same way. After visiting a restaurant he would be able to tell you the waiter’s name, along with their personal story and goals in life.

7. Forgive quickly

Ken was a fan of honesty. This meant you didn’t always like what he said. He expected this honesty to be reciprocated. Which meant he didn’t always like what I told him. This lead to the occasional blow-up. But I always knew that this would be left at work, and that Ken would forgive anyone prepared to learn. He forgave quickly. He forgave completely. He didn’t give any energy to grudges. I know he didn’t leave any unresolved issues behind.

Ken hugging me on a work trip to New York City in 2012

8. Let people know how you feel

Ken let you know he cared about you. He wasn’t scared of showing his feelings. He cared deeply for his employees, customers, friends and family. Ken was a hugger. Before any overseas trip he’d give me a goodbye bear hug and wish me safe travels. Before he left for that fateful Easter weekend he snuck away early without telling anyone. Not saying a proper goodbye could have haunted me. But it doesn’t. I know he cared about me and that nothing was left unsaid. I have a hundred other hugs and fond memories I can hold onto. Let people know how you feel, don’t ever wait.

A typical photo of Ken, the centre of attention, surrounded by smiles.

Even though the moments immediately before I learned of Ken’s death still haunt me, I like to also think of them as the lead up to learning how to be live properly. I hope sharing these moments help you do the same.

Ken Lilley was killed in a motor bike accident while travelling home from an Easter weekend in Kaiteriteri. He was doing what he loved, in the place he loved most in this world, with his beautiful wife who he loved more than anything. While his death still seems grossly unfair I know that his legacy will live on through the people he changed. We can all learn from how Ken lived.

To the Lilley’s, thank you for sharing Ken with us all.

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