His brother’s untimely death led him to design a life with meaning


Editor’s note: This blog is part of a series of first person essays about identity written by UTEP honors students during the spring 2013 semester.

EL PASO – “He just died.” That’s how I heard that my older brother was dead.

He had developed pancreatic Cancer at 31 years old, and had been deteriorating ever since. The doctors had told us that everyone who lived two years after diagnosis never had a reoccurrence for the rest of their lives. That was encouraging news, until we found out that the survival rate is four percent. He was 33 at the time of his death. He’d almost made it.

David Jacobson, foreground, his twin, Brian, in the center, and his older brother, Ben, in the background, at the zoo on the Ivory Coast, West Africa. (Courtesy of David Jacobson)

David Jacobson, foreground, his twin, Brian, in the center, and his older brother, Ben, in the background, at the zoo on the Ivory Coast, West Africa. (Courtesy of David Jacobson)

At the time that my older brother passed away I was in the midst of finals in my graphic design program in Seattle. His death, though somewhat expected, was still a tragedy for all of us who were involved in his care from the beginning. We had all come together over this illness to support him, each other, and ourselves. Now that he was gone, the close-knit community that had developed over the last two years had melted back into daily life. That other life that somehow continues on despite the fact that your own might be collapsing around you.

It’s times like these that you’re faced with three choices: carry on as though nothing has happened, let it bury you under the weight of guilt, anger, resentment, and sorrow that you feel, or you can let it renew your desire to live a life that is stripped of that which does not matter – a life that can hold meaning in every action and thought. A designed life. As my life hung in the balance between apathy and action, there was a realization that I was still around. A realization that is, at its heart, one of the simplest ideas in humankind, and one of the most profound.

As a child of missionary parents, I’ve grown up in many different places – experiencing cultures and environments that have led me to an understanding that we are products of how we react to things, not how things act upon us. In Abidjan I played in the dirt and swam in lagoons. In Paris I practiced my cursive and developed a love of new food. In California I learned to skate and play handball. In New Mexico I fell in love with Hip Hop and the desert. In Seattle I learned to mountain climb and skydive. All of these different elements define who I am, and I took an active role in designing them.

This experience was an opportunity to create a new reality within myself. A new way of seeing the world that would allow me to forgive more easily, listen more carefully, spend more time, and get things done.  My brother’s death was a chance for me to reconnect with that quiet urgency that wells up within you when you travel or step out of your comfort zone. It was an opportunity to start the design process over again, but designing one’s life is not as easy or as natural as it may seem.

Tragedy is a powerful motivator for many to begin the process of designing their own lives, but it is not a necessary, nor a desired one. The simplest act that we can perform is to decide to do something, but the myriad pieces needed to accomplish that goal begin to stretch out before us into infinity.

I feel empowered by my ability to make things happen by consciously working toward a goal. Sometimes it is just as important to resist a change in order to keep an important design element, as it is to accept a change in order to replace or insert another. From the beginning to the end, all of our lives are designed. The question is: are you the designer, or has your life been designed for you?





  1. Gina Núñez-Mchiri

    David what a powerful and insightful narrative. I am glad you are designing the life you now have and am sure that in doing this you are honoring your brother’s spirit. To many more adventures and memorable experiences to come.

  2. Diana Soular on

    Great writing and very poignant. My grandfather just died a few days ago, and, while the situation is different from your own, some of the same feelings have washed over me.

  3. I love this piece, David. Well written and your life has been well designed by the great artist that you are. It is nice to remember Ben as a catalyst for change and a desire to live one’s life to the fullest.

  4. Well said David. A testament to making every day count. I felt similarly when my mom passed. Expected yes, but when it happened, it challenged what I thought about who I was, where I was going. I became acutely aware of time passing and how fragile we all are. I realized I did not want to wake up at the end of my life, having regrets, of the “I always wanted to …” (but never got around to doing it). Describing it as a ‘designed life’ is so perfect. Or ‘an intentional life’ full of purpose.

    Again well done. Thanks for sharing. Ben was a powerful life force.

  5. I appreciate how you were able to find meaning in life in the face of tragedy without falling back on religion or God, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there are other avenues, such as art and philosophy, that can bring comfort as well.

  6. It is a beautiful gift to be able to cast a positive light for growth and rebirth in times of great darkness. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Diana Jacobson on

    Well put and the question you pose is an incredibly important one; why not take control of your own tragedy and write out your own fate as you please?

  8. David Jacobson

    Someday I will write a story about why people call me Jacob. Throughout my life I have introduced myself as David Jacobson and many times have been called Jacob. Jacob being an ancestor, his son being known as Son of Jacob (Jacob’s Son), then being condensed into Jacobson and turned into a Surname. From thence on, our Patrilineality was of the Jacobson variety. Maybe there is a subconscious desire to acknowledge my ancestral foundation! OR, something else…

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