Finding Purpose Through Death

By  Joeel A. Rivera, M.Ed.

We all have a story to tell that makes us who we are today. Our stories do not define us, but they are a powerful creative force for getting you to where you are. It is how you tell your story that ultimately determines what direction you move in life. Taking a deeper look at your own story can be transformation, and it can also serve to teach others. When we’ve gone through tough experiences in our past, we often inhibit ourselves from sharing some parts of our story for fear of what others may think; however, by doing so we also deprive the people around us from the lessons that we have learned.

When we share our lessons we give others the opportunities to share their lessons with us. Imagine how much more powerful the world would be if we embraced the notion of being a teacher and student. For example, what have you overcome? What challenges have you had? What learning experiences have you had in your journey? Practicing what I preach, I will share part of my journey and life lesson through this letter to my brother. I will share how our enlightened relationship transformed my life.


I write this with tears, but these tears are different than the ones that I carried for many years. I can now say that I truly understand your last words before your death. It seems like yesterday we were sitting across from each other in your room, you 17 and me 19, practicing how to read each other’s minds. It seemed that from an early age you understood life, as if you were an old soul, knowledgeable and compassionate about making the world a better place. In fact, people thought we were twins because of our resemblance and the way that we communicated and understood each other without words. We always found ways to encourage each other through the challenging times.

Even when I had given up on my belief in myself after failing my first year in college, you encouraged me and reminded me of my potential.

My memory of that night of July 1st, 1999 seems surreal. As we sat on the roots of a several-hundred-year-old Ceiba tree at two o’clock in the morning, probably as many people had before us, we were in a deep discussion about life. You looked at me as if you were talking to my soul. You explained that you had a deep feeling that you would die young. You said that you did not want to die, but you knew that you would make a larger impact through your death than through life. I questioned you but you could not explain the feeling. We sat there in silence as we both started to weep, as if mourning the inevitable.

Two days later I was awoken with the sentence that still takes my breath away to think about. “Wake up, Daniel has been in a car accident.” I desperately asked if you were okay, just to find silence. However, I continued to probe and received the answer that in my heart I already knew. Why you?  I asked, wishing that it was me instead. My emotions and my body sat still in time, not knowing what to think and feel.

I remember coming back home from your funeral as it started to rain. As if by instinct, I started to run in the rain, just like we had so many times as children. It almost felt as if through the rain you were washing away my tears.

Why you? You had that energy and wisdom to change the world. Those words lingered in my mind, “I will have a bigger impact through death.” You never explained the pain and what that impact would entail for my life. I was lost, desperate, overcome with the grief of losing my brother, my best friend, my guide. I developed severe high blood pressure, was sleeping two hours a day, developed ulcers, and lost over twenty five pounds.

Several months later I reached my breaking point after getting in a car accident that nearly took my life. I remember being on my knees at home screaming, talking to you, desperate for answers. That night I saw you in my dream, you looked at me with the same look that you gave me that night under the tree. Through tears of your own you explained that you were okay and that you were paving the way for me and that you no longer wanted me to suffer. At that point I wished you were not just in my dream, but I woke up with a sense of peace and purpose.  This sense drove me to go back to school and finish my Bachelor’s with a 3.8, my Master’s with a 3.9, and my Ph.D. with a 4.0. It drove me to open a counseling center for youth to honor your name, as I had promised the day after that dream. The center still serves many teens that are sharing the pain that we both shared at your time of death. Through your death I have been inspired to follow my true path and have mentored, motivated, and shifted thousands of youth, individuals, and families, and will continue to share the light that you blessed me with.

More than 10 years since you left, in a state of sleep, I had a dream that was so vivid that it seemed real. I saw myself living many different lifetimes, and in each one of them I would die a traumatic death. At the end of the last one it was as if my spirit was lifted and I experience your presence, your light. I explained to you that I didn’t see how I could live through these experiences again because each time I come back more confused—as if it had created a fog in my being. You said to me, “In the next life, I will come back with you and die an early death in order to shift you and change your path so that you won’t have to go through that cycle again.” I asked why you would do that, and you answered that I did the same thing at one point for you. Whatever meaning I can take from that dream, in reality that it is exactly what you did. At the point of my life when you passed away I was reckless and confused and your death shifted my path from me dying an early, or a traumatic, death.  

It is as if you had a contract with my soul.

As my brother, my best friend, and soul mate I thank you for all the wonderful moments that you gave me in my development. I thank you because the tears that I shed now are of joy and gratitude for your sacrifice. I finally understand your words, “I will make a larger impact through death.” I carry you in my life as if we are one, always remembering that the greatest thing that I can do for you is make the impact in the world that you so desired. And as I promised 10 years ago, through my life your name and spirit will live and be shared, Daniel Rivera.

Love you eternally!

Joeel A. Rivera

We all have people that come into our lives to help us grow, and some times they must leave us to impart their lesson. It may be hard to look through the pain to see the blessings that the experience can lead to in your life. Don’t get me wrong, I still miss my brother and all the experiences that I would have wanted to share with him physically, even if I see the blessings that he has brought into my life through his death. I ask you to take a minute and look at those that have hurt you or are no longer with you and truly find meaning and purpose within your pain. You may notice that through that pain and hurt you can grow, not only to teach yourself life lessons but also to teach those around you.

At the same time, I ask you to reflect on those in your life that have loved, inspired, and supported you, and reach out to share your gratitude with them. You don’t know how long you will have the blessing of sharing your life with them. With that said, I want to say “thank you” from the bottom of my heart to you, as a reader of this book, for supporting me by reading this book and/or sharing it or any of my other programs or materials with those you love. It is through your support that I can keep my promise and follow my purpose to keep my brother’s lessons alive.

 Joeel A. Rivera, M.Ed.

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