Saturday is my 64th birthday. The same date will mark the 50th anniversary of a personal tragedy.

At 5 a.m. on my 14th birthday, my father—34, recently divorced and out partying with friends—was struck by a car as he was walking across a darkened Kendall Drive in Miami. He died instantly. The aftershocks have reverberated ever since.

When the Florida Highway Patrol trooper knocked on our front door at dawn to notify next of kin, my brother, a year older than I, opened the door. “Son,” the trooper told him, “why don’t you go back to your bedroom and let me talk to your mom.”

My mother told me the news when I woke up at 9 a.m. I remember the crack of sunlight beaming in beneath the shade on the windowsill in my bedroom and how my mom, still in shock, sat down at my bedside and reached out to pat me on the shoulder as she began to speak. “So, something bad has happened . . .”

Losing a parent is a devastating blow, no matter when it happens. When it occurs on your 14th birthday, it feels a bit more tragic, or maybe just more theatrical. And the reality is that everyone endures loss. Many people suffer far worse and recover remarkably well. How we respond to a life-altering setback, and what good lessons we can draw from it are key to shaping our lives for the better.

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