This Sunday is going to be an emotionally difficult day for me. While many people will be celebrating how amazing their dads are, I will be reminded of how wonderful my dad was.

For twenty-one years of my life, I was blessed with having the best dad in the world. He taught me how to ski when I was two and a half; he put all meetings aside to cheer me on at my squash tournaments; and he frequently reminded my mother, brother and me that we were the center of his life. Dad sang me “The Farmer in the Dell” and told me to “be the Cheese,” encouraging me not to be afraid to forge my own path, even if that meant standing alone. He taught me how to be self-confident, why I should be a diehard NY Giants fan, and always told me that I looked “the most-est beautiful. ” I knew I would always have his support. And I still feel encouragement, even though he’s gone.

But even all the good memories don’t make up for how hard Father’s Day can be. So, I’ve created a video for those of us who have to get through Father’s Day without our fathers, and I’ve offered 5 tips for how to cope. My 5 tips are:

1. Embrace the holiday
2. Spend time with others who loved him
3. Appreciate what you did have
4. Accept the change
5. Avoid the junk

These might seem vague, but watch the video! These tips are based on my six years of experience celebrating Father’s Day without my dad, and I‘ve found them to be really helpful in my own life.

When the topic of Father’s Day comes up, lots of people give me the same doleful pity eyes. I know they’re just trying to be sympathetic, but I don’t feel bad for myself. Yes, Father’s Day is a tough day for me, but that’s ok!  Although my time with my idol and biggest fan was cut short, I had those twenty-one magical years; saying I’m fortunate is a gross understatement. Yes, I will long for my dad on Father’s Day, but with teary eyes, I smile, knowing how lucky I am to honestly admit, “I miss him every day.”

Death, Dying, and Dealing with It

Three years ago, I could never have imagined that I’d be contributing to a blog about end of life. I was a new mom, focused on reading parenting books and blogs—thinking about the beginning of life, not the end. My husband, son, and I had a comfortable, happy life in Philadelphia, and enjoyed having much of our family nearby in Washington, DC and New York. We were like most new families: stumbling along trying to figure out how to be good parents and how to still be good to ourselves, each other, our friends and our families despite our new responsibilities. Death was the last thing on my mind.

But during the summer of 2009, before my son turned one year old, my mom was hospitalized with pneumonia. At first it seemed like no big deal. My mom was otherwise healthy. She was weeks before her seventieth birthday, and barely looked sixty. While not one to exercise a lot, she was very active and naturally svelte. We all assumed that with a couple of weeks of antibiotics she’d be back to her old self in no time.

I got the first inklings that something wasn’t right when I visited her at the hospital and there was some talk about the antibiotics not working. After chest x-rays and switching antibiotics, they decided to drain some fluid from her lungs and send her home with oxygen, new antibiotics, and a follow-up appointment for a CT scan. A week later, back home in Philly, I got a call from my dad: my mom didn’t have pneumonia. She had lung cancer. Stage IV adenocarcinoma.

I knew nothing about adenocarcinoma, but I knew that Stage IV was bad. Even before talking to a doctor, I knew that this was the beginning of the end, that the end couldn’t be too far away, and that it would probably be pretty ugly. My mom didn’t want to know anything about her chances of survival, but my brother—who lived near my parents in DC—and I wanted to know everything. My dad was caught somewhere in the middle: he wanted to be informed, but like my mom, he wasn’t ready to hear that the end was near. My mom suggested that my brother and I talk to the doctor without her and ask whatever questions we wanted. Between her doctor and our own research, here’s what we learned: there’s no cure, the best you can do is keep the disease in check with chemo (often called “palliative chemo”) and that about 99% of those diagnosed with Stage IV adenocarcinoma do not survive 18 months.

Amazingly, my mom fell into that other 1% of cases: she didn’t die right away. She beat everyone’s expectations and almost made it to the two-year mark. But four months before she passed away, in a cruel twist of fate, I was diagnosed with my own cancer.

In January 2012, I became pregnant, and we began hoping that my mom would be around long enough to meet our second child. Instead of having a child though, I suffered a miscarriage and was diagnosed with a molar pregnancy—a rare condition in which the placenta grows irregularly and becomes tumorous. Most often a molar pregnancy can be resolved just with surgery, but two months later I found out that I was in the unlucky minority for whom it turns into cancer. You read that right. Instead of having a baby, I got cancer.

So here I am, a year later, newly cancer-free and without my mom, doing something I’d never imagined doing: telling the story of this insanity on a blog about death, dying, and dealing with it. Over the next few months, I’ll shed more light on my mother’s decline and death, my own struggle with facing mortality, and what it’s been like trying to maintain some semblance of sanity throughout. I’ve been through it all, and hopefully by sharing it, we can learn from each other.

We've talked on the blog before about how to help a friend who's experiencing a hardship and what to say (and not to say) when offering sympathy. Every time the topic comes up—whether on Facebook or Twitter or in our personal lives—it's clear that this is an issue that we all want to talk about and that we could all use a little guidance around. Thankfully, now there's a book for that: How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick by Letty Cottin Pogrebin

In today's New York Times, Judith Graham shares an interview with Ms. Pogrebin to talk about her personal experiences of being sick (she was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago), and what being a patient taught her about being a better friend. From the interview:

Q. When you were ill with breast cancer back in the fall of 2009 and early 2010, what did you most want from your friends?
A. I wanted them to really tune into my moods. Because I’m somebody who sometimes needs a lot of love and sometimes needs to be left alone. And the illness heightened those extremes. Being sick magnifies everyone’s essential characteristics.

Q. What kinds of responses were most helpful to you?
A. The people who asked, “Would it be good if I came over now, would you rather I don’t come over at all, or would you rather I come on Saturday?” And the people who said, “I’m going to bring you a present, so you might as well tell me what you want.” I learned through these interactions that you can be direct and candid — on both sides.

Q. What kinds of responses were most off-putting?
A. That everyday question, “How are you?,” with the portentous overlay of tragedy. You would say, “Fine.” And then they would say, “How are you, really?,” with a sort of sanctimony bordering on pity. In normal discourse it’s common to say, “How are you?” And we all say, “Great, fine.” But when a sick person is asked, “How are you?,” we have to calculate how much we’re going to tell and how much someone really wants to know. If it turns out someone is just going through the motions in asking, that leaves a really sour taste in your mouth.

Q. So, what’s a friend supposed to do?
A. Ask, “What are you feeling?” That will elicit a much more honest answer. Then the person who’s been sick can say, “I’m really depressed and tired of people asking me how I am, and I want to normalize my life.” That’s how I felt: I really didn’t want to revisit my diagnosis and the fear I’d felt.

Q. What about when someone’s died? That’s often awkward.
A. Tell the truth. Say something like, “I feel so sad for you.” And if you have a memory, give it. Tell how you’ll always remember how beautifully this woman’s husband played the cello or how his smile could light up the room, or how your friend’s mother had the most magnificent voice. Something that establishes that the person left a mark on your life and acknowledges the meaningfulness of the life that’s just ended.

For the complete interview, visit The New Old Age blog. And for our tips on how to express sympathy, see our article How to Express Sympathy: What to Say and What Not to Say.

via The New York Times

On May 29, 2013, an event that many in the funeral industry had been anticipating for years finally came to fruition: Service Corporation International (SCI), America’s largest provider of funeral, cremation and cemetery services, acquired the second largest, Stewart Enterprises. According to SCI’s press release announcing the acquisition, the deal “has an enterprise value of $1.4 billion.” The CEOs and shareholders were pleased; both companies saw a rise in stock price after the announcement. 

SCI released that they were keen on this acquisition because not only would they obtain more funeral homes and cemeteries but also, they were attaining them at a time when they could bank on the baby boomers aging. According to Reuters

Large-scale consolidation in the highly fragmented funeral business has long been on the cards, with the industry looking to sell more pre-planned funeral contracts to the 76 million baby boomers in the United States.

SCI believes it can profit from of these 76 million people—not only when they die, but also beforehand, by convincing them to pre-arrange their own funerals. (SCI anticipates that this will bring in about 9 billion dollars for the company.)

Of course, there are those who are not pleased with the acquisition. In this situation, it’s the independent funeral home owners. One, Tom Crean, made a short film in which he compared himself to Don Quixote. He fears that as SCI gains over ten times the revenue of its nearest competitor not only will he be put out of business, but also citizens will be penalized with higher corporate prices and less personal service.

I’m not going to take a stand on the acquisition and the growing of SCI. I will, however, agree with both SCI and the independents that everyone should pre-plan his or her funeral! This means that you take the initiative to go to the funeral home and work with a licensed funeral director to plan out what you’d like when your time comes. It means deciding whether you want to be buried or cremated (and where you want to go after that), picking your casket, and even choosing the flowers, and then (possibly) paying for the arrangements. You might think that sounds crazy. I want to tell you: it’s not!

Tom Crean appropriately quotes Don Quixote saying, “Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.” In “life as it is” we don’t think about or talk about our own funerals because we’re afraid. In “life as it should be” we know what we want for our funerals, we make decisions ahead of time, and we share our choices with our families, relieving them of the burden of last-minute, super-stressful decision-making. When we pre-plan, we don’t have to fear being taken advantage of by the mega conglomerates because we go into the funeral homes not when we are grieving, not when we are emotionally drained, and not when we’re primed to be taken advantage of.  Instead, we will take the time to visit multiple locations and meet with different directors. We will decide not only whom we want to work with, but also what we want our send-offs to look like.

This might sound bizarre to some of you, but take a step back and ask yourself why. I cannot think of another significant event that we plan last minute.  Imagine planning a wedding two days before the guests arrive! Would you be able to choose a venue under the pressure of an imminent deadline? Would you be able to pick exactly which flowers you wanted? Could you remember each song that you wanted played? The bride certainly would not be able to find her perfect dress... 

You might protest, noting that you are not the one attending your funeral—and that’s a fair point. But let me tell you: even if you don’t care about what happens at your funeral, by planning in advance, you are giving your family an invaluable gift by not burdening them with the task. Let it be your final loving gesture to them; let them grieve and not plan. 

I worked in the industry for multiple years. Every day, I saw families struggle to figure out exactly what their loved one would have wanted.  “If only we knew….” was a sentence I heard too often.  I unfortunately was able to empathize with these clients because I too had been in that painful situation. When my father passed away, not knowing what he wanted, I fell into the trap that many others do; I overspent. We cannot help but think that this is the final gesture we can make for our loved ones; it seems reasonable to break the bank for them. But it’s not necessary.

Empower yourself! Accept that you are not invincible. You, like every other person in the world, will have a funeral. So make it yours, and make it great.

“I don’t know what I want to do, but I do know that I will never wear a suit to work.” At the time, I wasn’t lying when I made that bold statement to my college advisor. I was a bubbly and vivacious young Manhattanite who was trying to choose among exciting jobs in the fashion, event planning, or maybe even non-profit worlds. I had the passion to work in those industries; all I had to do was choose one.

But my plans changed. Just before I graduated from NYU, my 60-year-old father, my idol, lost his battle with cancer. He was the most important person in my life, and I was convinced that he was too good for a typical funeral.

So I used my event planning skills and gave my father a worthy sendoff: friends delivered funny speeches, roasting my father; we covered his casket in peonies, my mother’s favorite flowers (which were out of season at the time); and at the end of the service we played The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, and everyone danced their way out of the chapel. Not only did I shock and impress the hundreds of guests who attended, but also I surprised myself. I found that I really enjoyed planning funerals! And actually, it all made sense: planning funerals combined the best of all the careers I’d been interested in.

After graduating, I stunned my family and friends and I took a job at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, the funeral home where we held my father’s funeral. For over three years I worked with the talented funeral directors there to help families through their extremely (and uniquely) difficult times. Sometimes I assisted with organizing a 1500-person funeral; sometimes I was simply a shoulder for a widow cry on. No matter the task, I felt privileged to be a part of helping people through the emotional and logistical challenges of a funeral. As time went on, I also had the opportunity to work with our prearrangement counselors, sitting with families as they discussed and choose what they wanted their farewells to look like.

Through my work at the funeral home, my passion to help people after they’ve lost a loved one grew. I realized that I wanted to reach more people than just those who came through the Campbell’s doors, so I got my MBA. Perhaps, from a business standpoint, there was a way  to reach and assist more people.    

It was at this time that I was able to connect with Everplans. I soon realized that their entire team shared my passion for removing the fear and helping make these hard topics more approachable. They, like me, want to make the difficult task of planning as easy as possible—whether planning a funeral or planning for your family’s financial future.

I know from experience that no one can predict for sure when a death is going to occur. Unlike many, I accept that death is inevitable. My hope is that in working with Everplans I can help people think about things like funerals before the time comes. Rather than fearing the experience and brushing aside funeral planning, I want to show people that with the right information and the right attitude, the end doesn’t have to be overwhelming and scary—it can be a joyous celebration, just the way you’d like it to be, complete with The Rolling Stones.

I'll be contributing to the blog with my thoughts on funeral planning and the funeral industry; I'll be tweeting @FuneralGuruLiz; and I'm also on Quora, answering all your funeral queries. Be sure to stick around!

In the New York Times this week there was a piece on the importance of talking with your parents about their financial affairs. We couldn't agree more.

Talking to your family—whether parents talking to children, or children talking to parents—is one of the most important things we can do to prepare ourselves for the future. Financial, legal, and medical issues are going to come up for all of us. Knowing what mom or dad wants, and having those wishes spelled out in legal documents, not only relieves adult children of a huge burden, but also ensures that parents' financial and medical instructions are followed in the way they want. Naming a power of attorney and health care proxy is the first step that parents should take. Creating a will is essential as well, especially if parents have complex assets or young children. And organizing passwords and important documents, and then actually sharing the location of that information, is the third essential to-do. These are difficult conversations to have, and the logistics can feel overwhelming, but everyone will benefit in the end.

And to read about other people's experiences in planning (and not planning), check out the comments section of the piece.

via New York Times


After she experienced the death of someone she loved, New Orleans resident Candy Chang was grieving and thinking about death—and life. Thinking about death, she wrote,

helped clarify my life, the people I want to be with, and the things I want to do, but I struggled to maintain perspective. I wondered if other people felt the same way. So with help from old and new friends, I painted the side of an abandoned house in my neighborhood in New Orleans with chalkboard paint and stenciled it with a grid of the sentence “Before I die I want to _______.” Anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on their lives, and share their personal aspirations in public space.

And people did pick up the chalk, reflect, and share. The original project in New Orleans was a success, and Candy and her friends built the Before I Die Toolkit, so that people all over the world could create their own local Before I Die projects. Before I Die walls have been created in Abu Dhabi, UAE; Beijing, China; and Cordoba, Spain; in Xalapa, Mexico; Yankton, South Dakota; and Zürich, Switzerland.

This project is an amazing way to think about community, mortality, and our individual and collective aspirations. "Each wall is a tribute to living an examined life," says Candy Chang. Looking at the photos of the Before I Die walls around the world is inspirational, and makes us want to take a moment to think about our own answers and ask you: How would you fill in the blank?

6/28/13 UPDATE:

Candy Chang has released a TEDTalk: What do YOU want to do before you die?


Every year on Memorial Day we remember the men and women who have died while serving our country in the U.S. Armed Forces. This year, the New York Times has published an interview and a series of photographs by Luke Sharrett, a freelance photographer whose cousin was killed in Iraq.

From the piece:

I lost my cousin Dave—Pfc. David H. Sharrett II, who was in the 101st Airborne Division—when he was killed by friendly fire in Balad, Iraq. That was my introduction to Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery and what it means, the tears that are shed there and the family members and friends who come back to visit those who are buried there.

I started noticing the tops of the tombstones in 2010, as I covered active-duty casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery for The New York Times, when I was an intern in the Washington bureau. It was always a somber assignment, and every time I was there I would notice something different on the headstones. At Christmastime there would be wreaths on almost every headstone, and around Memorial Day and the Fourth of July there would be American flags.

On Memorial Day and Veterans Day there would be a lot more people, families and friends of the military personnel buried there, and there would be more mementos and trinkets left—tokens that would evoke memories that were sentimental to the person buried there or the visitor. They ranged from predictable things like flowers or their unit insignia to the less predictable, like childhood toys, a half-finished bottle of Jack Daniels or a candy bar.

There’s more to these stories than just the names and dates inscribed on the front of the headstones.

To view the entire interview and see all of Luke's photos, click here.

via New York Times

The day someone you love is diagnosed with a terminal disease, the sheer terror that takes over will likely cause you to go into shock. After that, figuring out what to do next—how to put one foot in front of the other and carry on—can be just as perplexing, complicated, and traumatic as the news of the diagnosis. That’s why this week I’m sharing my top five things to do the day someone you love is diagnosed with cancer.

1. Call a best friend (or five). Maybe it’s your college roommate. Your childhood buddy. Your summer camp BFF. Regardless of whether or not you consider yourself a private person, I urge you to contact a friend for support. There’s something incredibly comforting about hearing a friend simply listen.  Furthermore, letting a close friend know the news early can help him or her more easily be a consistent source of support for you in the future.

2. Work your network. This might be an over-achieving Day One activity, but at the very least start thinking about the people you know. The secret power of your network is that you never know who you know who knows the sister, brother, cousin, housekeeper (you get the idea) of a top-notch, cutting edge oncologist who can get you an appointment with one quick phone call. If there was ever a time to broadcast your ask, now is the time. Working your network can also help connect you to people who have been through what you’re going through and who can shed light on what’s to come—both for you and for your loved one. Connecting to others who are fighting the same disease can help your loved one prepare for symptoms and learn about the experiences of other people with the same illness.

3. Do something (anything) else. It may seem unnatural (or even wrong) at first, but try to do something unrelated to the distressing news. It doesn’t have to be an activity that lasts a long time; it can be something simple, like watching a TV show or responding to a couple of quick work emails or going to the gym or cooking yourself a meal. Your ability to juggle your loved one’s diagnosis and the normal demands of your everyday life will become more and more important, and the faster you can adapt to this, then the stronger your mental health will be. That said, if you simply don’t feel ready to do this on Day One, there’s always Day Two.

4. Set a schedule for Day Two. The dreadful feeling of waking up “the morning after” is just as horrible as hearing the diagnosis for the first time. On Day One, before you go to sleep, make a plan for Day Two. It doesn’t matter what the schedule is, it simply matters that you have one. Your Day Two schedule will help keep you grounded, so that when you wake up in the morning and the dark reality envelops you all over again, you have something to do. Go out for bagels. Go for a run. Breathe.

5. Just go with it. Everyone grieves, adapts, and comes to terms with trauma differently, and it’s worth figuring out how you are feeling and doing what feels right to you. Listen to yourself, and do what comes naturally.  So cry, hug your newly-diagnosed loved one. Hug everyone. Take a bath, or eat a large bag of Sour Patch Kids (that’s what I did). Whatever makes you feel good, however you know to express yourself—go with it.

Of course, these tips are based on my own experience, and everyone’s experience will be different. But I hope that this list will help you dodge the sting of the shrapnel that comes on diagnosis day. Because you will get through it—one way or another. Day Two will come. 

Judy MacDonald Johnston, creator of Good [End Of] Life, gave a powerful talk at the TED conference this year. It inspired us; we hope it inspires you.