Learning life lessons from Natasha Richardson

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  March 19, 2009 at 10:26 AM
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WASHINGTON, March 19 (UPI) -- Natasha Richardson's death at the age of 45 was heartbreaking. The much beloved actress died Wednesday after being taken off life support. She had suffered what at first appeared to be only a minor fall on a "bunny" ski slope at a Canadian resort.

It seemed no more than a trip on the slope at first. Richardson was in typical bubbling good humor and laughed off the idea that she should see a doctor. She felt fine. An hour later she had a pounding headache and then fell unconscious. Her tragedy fits the classic definition of an act of God -- or fate. There was nothing anyone could have done.

Richardson appeared to have had a charmed life with gifts of the gods showered upon her. She was the daughter of the outstanding British director Tony Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave, an outstanding icon of the stage and screen in both Britain and the United States. She was happily married to the great Northern Irish actor Liam Neeson, who played Oskar Schindler and Darkman. They lived a sociable, low-key life in New York City with their two sons -- Micheal, 13, and Daniel, 12. Neeson had just had one of the biggest hits of his career with the action movie "Taken." Her aunt, uncle and sister were veteran respected actors too.

There seemed nothing Natasha Richardson couldn't do. She was an outstanding movie and stage actress. She won a Tony on Broadway. She sang and danced as the definitive Sally Bowles of her generation in the 1998 Broadway revival of "Cabaret."

Most important of all, Richardson was a delight. Family, close friends and her hugely wide circle of professional colleagues and even casual acquaintances testified to her good nature, kindness, sense of fun and bubbling enjoyment of life. She was one of those people, it appears, who lifted the spirits of everyone around her just by being there. In the gathering global economic gloom and doom, that was a gift more valuable than gold.

The terrible tragedy that afflicted the Neeson-Richardson family is, of course, hardly unprecedented. Even in times of peace and prosperity, our world can be a terrifying, deadly and unpredictable place. Families are shattered and loved ones are suddenly and traumatically lost by apparently random, meaningless accidents, acts of fate and violence all the time.

The great psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her classic work on dealing with suffering, defined five stages of loss -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Anyone who has suffered serious losses in their lives, or who has tried to console those who have, knows Kubler-Ross was right. People may get through the five stages in different ways, at different rates, quickly or slowly or get hung up on one of them for months or years or the rest of their lives. But the stages are there.

There is an admirable and wise tradition that has spread widely in recent decades to use funeral and memorial services to give thanks for the lives of the loved ones who have passed on. The emphasis is on joy and gratitude for what they contributed in their lives to counterbalance the pain, suffering and gaping holes that their departure leaves behind them. No blessing or joy, grief or pain lasts forever on the mortal coil. Great blessings are given to us for an appointed time. We do well to cherish them and count the joy they gave us when their appointed time is done.

In a world of epic events that daily affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people, the dignity and importance of the individual and the significance of how we live our personal lives is all too easily overlooked. But Natasha Richardson really did live a wonderful life, and she brought her joys to everyone around her. Her family already knows all that. The rest of us would do well to remember it too.

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