Learning From An Unexpected Death

Have you ever experienced an unexpected death of a co-worker or friend?

After the initial shock, did your mind go back to memories of certain moments with that person?

I suspect your answer is “yes” to both of the above.  But what about the 3rd question below:

After the memories, did you pause to think about the lessons you could learn from your friend’s life?

Death is a dreary topic, but one we all face.  Therefore, today’s focus is on something we can all do when faced with a sad and unexpected death.  You can’t bring the person back.  However, there is something you can do which brings some value out of an unfortunate death. When faced with an unexpected loss, go beyond the first two phases (Shock & Memories), and…

…think about what you can learn from their life. 

Adding that final question helps define the legacy of the one who died. Every life has a purpose.  How better to honor their death than to think of the legacy and purpose that their life brought to you?  Don’t let their death result in an “empty chalkboard”.  Think about their legacy and learn some lessons from their life.  Add the lessons to your personal “learning” chalkboard.

When I die, I hope folks think about what they can learn by thinking about my life.  Yes, it’s morbid, but we’re all going to die.  Better to be transparent about it while we’re alive, and do whatever we can to live a life from which others can learn.  If nothing else, it will strengthen our purpose while we’re alive, and having a strong purpose is a proven key to Achieving A Great Retirement (my byline).

green chalkboard

An Example Of The “Lessons Learned From Death” Approach

First, The Initial Shock

Last week, I received an email from a previous co-worker and friend.   The email stopped me in my tracks.

“Did you hear that Dennis Tremblay* passed away last week? Only 59, a heart attack apparently…Life is sometimes unpredictable”.

*Not his real name – I’m using a ficticious name for this article to protect his identiy.

Second, The Memories

Dennis was my boss in the early 2000’s, and memories of my time working with him filled my head for the first 24 hours after I received that e-mail.  He was one of the most “unconventional” managers I’ve ever worked for.  He also enjoyed life, in a good way.  He truly loved the experience of life, and it showed in his jovial approach to his work. He loved great food, a great red wine, and he never seemed concerned about the things that most people worry about.

Once, when he was a plant manager, he changed everybody’s jobs on his plant leadership team just to see what would happen (yes, the gruff engineering manager became head of plant HR, and the gentile HR person took over leadership of an Operations team).  For those interested, it didn’t end well (no surprise, really), and he had to undo the “experiment”.  But he was bold enough to try it.

He once flew all the way to Brazil, only to realize upon landing that you can’t get into Brazil without a VISA (which he didn’t have).  He had to turn around and fly home.  Ironically (one of the infamous “Dennis stories”), he had the same name as someone on the terror watch list, and he was detained by the United States Homeland Security Office for 24 hours in Miami while they sorted out that he was not the suspected terrorist.  48 hours after he left home, he pulled back into his driveway without ever having attended to his business in Brazil.

This morning, I had a chat with a co-worker who had also worked with Dennis.  He shared the story of a dinner he once had with Dennis.  My friend had a critical business issue that he needed to discuss with Dennis (his boss at the time), and had spent quite a bit of time prior to the dinner “planning his strategy” for the critical discussion.  My co-worker was never able to get into the topic over the meal, as Dennis was notorious for his incredibly serendipitous conversation over meals.  The meals were always fascinating, but they were NOT the place to discuss critical business issues with Dennis – he was too busy enjoying the conversation, enjoying life.

He didn’t think the way most of us do, and he wasn’t much of a planner. He was, however, one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.  His career was an unorthodoxed success, as the company used him to “shake things up” in divisions where change was needed.






In my mind, Dennis was an artist, disguised in a business suit.  

I’ll cherish my memories of him.


Third, The Lessons:  Things I Can Learn From His Death

For the past few days, I’ve had random thoughts at unpredictable times about Dennis death.  It was during this time that I realized the value of the “Third Phase”, or taking time to learn valuable lessons from the one who has passed.  There are things in his passing from which we can all learn.  In sharing them, I hope that I’m adding to his legacy.

1) Ask Yourself Why You’re Planning To Retire

I’ve been thinking a lot about Dennis and my interview on Radical Personal Finance.  Ironically, Dennis died at approximately the same time that my interview was aired.  Early in that interview (at the 9min 30sec mark), Joshua Sheats asked me, “Why are you planning to retire?”

My response focused on the fact that we have a limited number of young(ish), healthy years, and I felt it was a “bad trade” to give up some of those valuable years for additional money.  Once I’ve achieved Financial Independence, I’d rather use that freedom to experience life, while I still had life in me, than to sacrifice those years for a bit more money.

Dennis also retired early, in his early 50’s.  He had a great “early retirement”, but it was a short one.

At age 59, he died.

The Lesson:  If you’re able to retire early, seriously consider it.  If you’re not, make sure you find ways to enjoy your life while you’re working.  Pursue something you’re passionate about, even if you have to do it on nights and weekends.  Find a way to love life.  If you can experience 50% of the “love of life” that Dennis did, you’ll have lived a good life.  Intentionally enjoy life as you live it. Don’t put off “joy” for tomorrow.  As we’ve learned from Dennis, tomorrow may never arrive.

2) Realize “Life Is Sometimes Unpredictable”

That quote, from the email of my friend advising me of Dennis death, has also stuck with me.  None of us plan to die, and yet it’s a destiny we’re all unable to escape.  Don’t assume nothing bad will ever happen in your life.  Be prepared.  Read these 7 Tips To Plan For Your Demise.  Maintain an emergency fund to avoid having a minor issue result in a crisis in your life.  Realize that we can’t know what tomorrow will bring, and plan accordingly.  As a Christian, my belief is all of us should seriously consider our place in eternity and relationship with God as one of our steps in thinking about our inevitable death.  Take it seriously, life is unpredictable.

3) Take Time To Love “The Ordinary” Things In Life

Take the time as you go through life to find a way to enjoy the ordinary.  Dennis knew he had to eat every day.  Why not turn that neccesity into something that could be truly savored?  Business talk over a dinner?  Not in Dennis’ world – that’d be a waste of a golden opportunity to have true conversation.   Take time to savor the ordinary, build relationships and focus on the right priorities.  Find a way to “love food”.

4) Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff

Dennis “never seemed concerned about the things most people worry about”.  How much of our anxiety is, in reality, self-induced?  I suspect 90% of what we worry about ends up being a waste of our time.  Have you ever noticed that the burning issue you couldn’t get out of your head at 1:00 am seems so trivial the following morning?  It happens to me, and I suspect it happens to you.  Make a choice to be content.  Worry Less.  Enjoy More.

5) Be Quirky

So often, we’re forced by our environments into conformity.  Not Dennis.  He was truly his own man.  Some criticized him for it.  Personally, I admired his courage to live his life as he felt it should be lived.  Make sure you think about what’s really important for you, and don’t let “society” force their priorities into your life.

6) Exercise

Unfortunately, this is a negative lesson.   While Dennis was an interesting guy, the reality is that he did not take care of his body.  He was overweight, and I suspect his heart attack was in strong part driven by his decision to neglect this element of his life.  He enjoyed a good life, but it ended much too soon. To truly enjoy a great retirement, keep yourself in shape.  When you’re “old” (whatever than means) and still able to live life to the fullest, you’ll thank yourself.

7) Leave a Legacy

Just as I’ve learned lessons from Dennis’ passing, realize that you have an opportunity to pass lessons on to others.  At some point, you will die.  While it sounds gloomy, realize the value of the days you get to live.  Teach others.  Live life.  Leave A Legacy.  Take time to think about the legacy you’ll leave to your family, friends and others with whom you share a relationship.  Focus on it.  Make it a purpose for your life, and intentionally work on it.



I realize this is a morbid topic, but death is an important element which we should think about while we’re still alive.  I’ve decided to be transparent with my blog site, and address things that are sometimes unpleasant to discuss.  I hope this article causes you to think just a bit differently about death, and how you deal with the loss of a friend.  More importantly, I hope it causes you to think about how you live your life, and intentionally live with the purpose of creating a legacy.

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Thanks for the memories, Dennis Tremblay.  More importantly, thanks for the lessons.



  1. Great perspective Fritz. Although I retired more years ago than I care to count and I have done many wonderful things since, this article has motivated me to keep in shape to enjoy even more adventures AND to not sweat the small stuff. Pardon me while I hit the treadmill!


  2. I wanted to add some comments and was overtaken by the fun on my first couple of weeks in retirement. I learned so much from my Father-In-Law (Doug) in that he loved everyone he met and loved them unconditionally, laughed loud and often and enjoyed the small things in life such as a tootsie roll, talking with his kids, walks on he beach with his grandkids, helping strangers with whatever, a round of golf with his friends and a short nap. He worked until he was about 68 and passed away 2 years later from cancer. A life well lived, but cut short. Love and miss that man … He was the driving force behind my desire to retire early and move on with the things we wanted to accomplish in our lives and not wait. We ARE building memories and a legacy now! Thanks for letting me share.

  3. Ironically, I just stumbled upon this post— We are two days away from the 3rd anniversary of my sister passing. She was 27. Her sudden passing was a catalyst for me to look more deeply at how I spend my time and my desires and begin to pursue FIRE. She was very “quirky” but unfortunately I did not appreciate it until she was gone. It is stated over and over but bears repeating that we are not promised tomorrow. My sister is lived life on her own terms and enjoyed the process as much as the destination. Nothing will bring her back or take the pain away but I can live better each day as a way to honor her memory.

    1. Lax, so sorry to hear about your sister’s passing at such a young age. I’m pleased to see you’re “looking deeply” at your own life as a result, and agree your approach is a great way to honor her memory. You’re correct in saying “we are not promised tomorrow”, and it’s an important lesson to remember every day. Sorry again for your loss, thanks for your personal comment.

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