Naya Rivera's loss is a hard reminder

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Editor's note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is at work on a book about how women are conditioned to compete with one another. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) — Actress Naya Rivera, perhaps best known for her turn as Santana Lopez on the campy Fox dramedy "Glee," was found dead Monday after disappearing at a California lake last week, authorities said.

She was 33 and leaves behind a 4-year-old son. Her death is being considered accidental.

The loss has resonated powerfully — across headlines, on social media and elsewhere in the culture. People can't avert their eyes because they are horrified at the passing of a young, beautiful person.

Then there is the oddity that she is the third of the show's actors to have passed at a very young age. Co-stars Cory Monteith died in 2013 of a drug overdose and Mark Salling died by an apparent suicide in 2018.

As we lament Rivera's loss, we can't help but evaluate our own lives and perhaps ask ourselves some questions.

Facing death — the idea of it, even — is never easy. There's something especially tragic, though, about early, untimely death; about being forced to consider the potential lost in a life not quite fully lived.

With celebrities, the feeling may be heightened, because they are, after all, larger than life and often present us an idealized image of a life we might aspire to.

Rivera began acting at the age of 4 on the show "The Royal Family." Over her nearly three-decade career, she appeared in the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "Family Matters," "The Bernie Mac Show," "Baywatch," "CSI: Miami," and many others, including "Glee."

Still, at 33, one assumes she had many years of career ahead of her.

Her story is particularly jarring in a time when emotions around illness and death are top of mind for most of us.

Months of living through the Covid-19 pandemic has had many of us contemplating mortality: how short life is (and tenuous), how we want to spend the time we have — the length of which, it has perhaps never been clearer, is entirely unknown.

The death of anyone reminds us: What have we not done, what could we be doing? Should we re-prioritize our lives? And we've already seen a lot of that happen during lockdowns and dislocation from our families, friends and jobs.

For many, taking a step back from typically busy lives has afforded them the opportunity to question whether those lives are the ones they really want to live and, if not, what changes they may be inclined to make.

At the same time, the sudden death of another can help us reconsider how much we "need to know" what our own lives will bring and to stop making rigid plans.

Humans are wired to plot and fret so much about the future, but what Covid has shown us, and what young death shows us tenfold, is that we can't know what will happen tomorrow. Learning to live in the now becomes essential.

When dealing with death in the present or at any point in one's life, it's key to understand that emotions will vary, but are to be felt (and not avoided) to best process and deal with the pain.

Such emotions can include hurt, confusion, anger, regret. They are not necessarily comfortable emotions, but they must be experienced. How they are experienced on any given day will differ from the next. Taking one day at a time may be a cliché, but it is true.

Unfortunately, there's no fancy, modern way to face the idea of death, no quick fix or easy out. There is no good way to fathom the often-unfathomable — how, say, a young mother with so many resources and so much going for her could, in the blink of an eye, no longer exist.

Our best bet is not to try to understand why, but to try to take from Rivera's, or any other's death a lesson we might apply to our own lives.

In thinking about who the young and talented Naya Rivera was and who and what she has left behind, we might begin to question, usefully, who is it we want to be?

This article has been updated to reflect the confirmation of Naya Rivera's death.

This story was first published on 'Naya Rivera's loss is a hard reminder'