For a blog series called A Matter of Life and Death, I admit that I’ve probably talked a lot more about the latter. (Sorry.)

“Can she keep this up?” you might be wondering. “This whole writing-about-death-all-the-time thing?” And the answer is, yes—with the help of a sense of humor.

Humor is essential for coping when tragedy strikes. Humor has saved me from depression, it has comforted me during the darkest moments, and, most importantly, it makes me feel connected, instead of utterly alone and parentless.

Some people say laughter is cathartic; some people may say I have a slightly twisted sense of humor. Either way, joking around—about my hardships specifically—gives me a break from the pain. And I really believe that laughter alters brain chemistry. If nothing else, being able to laugh during my months of pain bolstered my confidence and made me believe I could get through it, that I would survive this tragedy. Although nothing good comes of a terminal diagnosis or the death of a loved one, a reprieve from pain can be found in the humor. And often you don’t have to look very hard to find it.

When I first moved to San Francisco after my mother died, I found myself at a party with a bunch of new friends. When someone learned I’d moved all the way from the east coast to California, he quipped, “That must have really sent your parents to their graves.” I erupted with laughter.

Or how about the meeting with my mother’s financial advisor shortly after her death, when I was told that, from a tax perspective, her portfolio had done well, but we didn’t have enough loses to offset the gains. My immediate response, through a chuckle, was, “Well, I can think of one pretty big loss this year!” I cracked myself up with that zinger.  

Laughing in these situations makes me feel better about the situation. But the best part is being able to share these jokes with friends and family, the people who get me and see the humor, too. Something about being able to laugh with each other—the feeling that we’re connected and in this together—makes simultaneous, instinctive, and possibly off-color laughter the absolute best medicine.

After my mother’s funeral we sat shiva. After the first night of shiva drew to a close, I pushed the furniture to the edge of the room, turned the speakers up, and my friends and I danced our pants off. My mother was no longer in pain, and I had survived her death and funeral. We honored her and celebrated her with a nontraditional shiva that turned into a legendary party. Years later I refer to it as Shivapalooza, and my family and I love texting shiva puns and jokes to each other. “Shiva me timbers!” when someone’s surprised. “You’re giving me the shivas!” when someone’s nervous. The list goes on.  

Humor is personal. Maybe you don’t find these things funny, and I respect that. But if there’s one piece of advice I have for those of you dealing with heartache, hardship or tragedy, it’s to find your own humor. Find it in anything. Laugh, and laugh with others. It’s important. And I believe it’ll help you get through anything. Especially when you have no other choice.


Everplans co-founder Abby Schneiderman was interviewed by the Wall Street Journal's Digits blog today. In the interview, she talks about how Everplans began and why tech and end-of-life planning make a great match.

via Wall Street Journal Digits

How do children understand death? How do they handle grief? A new children's book, Missing Mommy: A Book About Bereavement by Rebecca Cobb, addresses these issues with grace, sympathy, and directness.

There are lots of wonderful resources available to children dealing with grief and loss; this seems like another great one to add to the list.

via New York Times

After my mom’s cancer diagnosis, lots of things changed: schedules, diets, and priorities, to name a few. But one of the most difficult things to get used to was the identity crisis that ensued. Because when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, she was quickly stripped of her sense of self. It felt like whoever she was—whatever made her her—was swallowed up by a new identity: Patient.

This new Patient identity ushered in a whole slew of undesirable things, such as fatigue, sickness, dependence and depression. My mother stopped reading the newspaper. She stopped watching TV, talking on the phone and finding enjoyment in simple pleasures, like going out to lunch with friends—things she used to do before she was sick. Her illness was all consuming, both mentally and physically.  

She could have given into this new identity completely. On some days, when she was feeling too weak and sick, she had no other choice. In the beginning, as I watched her involuntarily succumb to the identity of Patient, things felt foreign to me. She felt foreign to me. She was no longer the boisterous mother I’d known, excited to hear about my day and eager to spend time together. She wanted me nearby, but it seemed the only thing she wanted to do was sleep.

But on other days, in her own way, she pushed back against the forced identity of Patient.

After my mom started chemo, she was determined to go to work whenever she felt healthy enough to do so. I remember wondering why in the world she cared so much about going to work when she was fighting for her life. But now I realize that going to work allowed her to preserve something that, for her, was a vital source of strength. For 20 years my mother worked as Registrar at my high school, and like many people, her identity was wrapped up in her career. To throw in the towel after two decades would be giving even more to a disease that already had her in its grasp. Preserving this part of her identity gave her strength to endure her illness day-to-day. She still had something that was her own and existed outside of her role as Patient; she wouldn’t let cancer take that away from her.

A week before my mother died, her memory and lucidity began to fade and she asked a zillion questions. Where was her water glass? Did I write the mortgage check this month? Her last question before she stopped talking all together was, “What is the date?” And when I answered, “January 17th,” she replied, “Oh good, I made it to my last pay check.” At first I thought it was about the money, but I think my mom felt a small personal victory, knowing that she never had to officially resign from her job. She never lost that part of her identity to cancer.

But after she died, I could only remember her as Patient. Images of her bald and sick, depressed and tired flooded my memory, as though her 10 months of agony were happening all over again. It took a couple years for me to easily conjure up memories of her before she was sick, to dream about what she was like before cancer. But when I reach back, when I look for the real her, there she is, even when she was the Patient, fighting to go to work, relishing her final paycheck, and peeking out over the walls of her Patient identity, reminding me of who she really was.

How did humans die in the 20th century? The folks over at Information is Beautiful asked this question, and answered it with a beautiful infographic depicting the leading causes of death from 1900-2000. (Click on the image to take a closer look.)

Not only does this illustration shed some light on leading causes of death over the last 100 years, but it offers an interesting history of the 20th century as well.

via The Guardian

I feel the sting of my mother’s absence most acutely at the milestones. In some ways, the milestones, no matter how many years separate them from her death in 2010, make me feel like I’ve just lost her. But in other ways, the milestones that I’ve experienced without my mother bring a new richness, too—just because my mother is gone doesn’t mean that a joyous milestone must be tragic.

Before my mother died, her terminal illness made me think about future milestones that would come without her. I remember the day my mother and I were driving back from a chemo appointment and talking about my boyfriend at the time. I knew I wanted to marry him, but marriage was far off for us. My mother started crying. She would never hear a man ask for my hand in marriage, and she would never walk me down the aisle. I took hold of her hand as I pulled the car into our garage and was silent. Any words of comfort felt false at the time. So we sat in silence together, acknowledging the pain of it. And then we let it go. Because we both knew that my mother wouldn’t be there for one of the most important days of my life, and there was nothing either of us could do about it.

My mother wasn’t around last year when I planned my wedding. I remember standing in a bridal salon looking at myself in the mirror and aching for my mother’s opinion on a wedding dress. She wasn’t at my bridal shower, she didn’t walk me down the aisle, and she didn’t give a toast at the reception.

After I got married, I heard that a family friend had referred to my wedding as “heartbreaking” because my mother wasn’t there. My knee-jerk reaction was to chastise her. I wanted to tell her that though my mother’s death was heartbreaking, there was nothing heartbreaking about my wedding. In fact, on May 19, 2012, there wasn’t a single drop of sadness as I held back tears of pure joy and married my husband. I celebrated our marriage, my new loving in-laws, and my utter elation at winning the brother and sister-in-law lottery.

Not once on my wedding day did I mourn for my mother—not because I didn’t miss her, but because my loss does not define my gains.

When the trauma of my mother’s impending death hit me, I felt like my world was collapsing. I had trouble breathing, unable to imagine my life (or any hopeful, rosy version of it) without her. I believed that this cataclysmic loss would forever define my life; I couldn’t see another way. But then my life continued, without my mother. I began to learn what it felt like to have experiences without her, and I began to understand that my achievements are not solely defined by my loss, just as I am not solely defined by it.

And in a very real way, I’ve been able to feel my mother’s presence at my milestones. At my wedding, I felt her through her family and friends who watched me walked down the aisle and marry my husband. Seeing the delight on their faces was just a small window into what might have been, the overflowing joy that would have radiated from my mother, watching me on my wedding day.

Last month Slate re-ran a story from 2011 about a man named Harry, his dog Duke, and the Perfect Day they spent together before Duke died.

"[Harry had] gotten an idea, one he thought would pay tribute to his life with Duke and give him something to feel besides sadness and loss...'Tomorrow, I'm going to give you a Perfect Day,' he said quietly to Duke as they left the vet's office. He would take the day off from work and create a sweet memory with his dog. It would be a special day, filled with all the things Duke loved most, as close to perfect as Harry could make it."

If you've lost a beloved pet, what have you done to grieve the loss and remember your friend?

via Slate

This week the Alzheimer's Association released a report stating that 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer's disease or another type of demetia, a staggering statistic that has the potential to change the way we think about end-of-life planning.

Though dementia can cause death, Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia can also add to a rapid decline in physical (not just mental) health, compounding and intesifying existing health conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, and other health problems.

There are currently 5.2 million Americans living with Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia; by 2050, that number is estimated to increase to 13.8 million people. So what can we do to prepare ourselves for end-of-life, given this new information?

1. Talk to your family about your end-of-life wishes. By communicating with your family about how you want to be treated at the end of your life and what your priorities are (comfort, longevity, staying in your home, etc.), your family can feel more comfortable making care decisions on your behalf when the time comes.

2. Create an advance directive. By putting your health care wishes in writing in the form of a living will, you can save your family the stress of trying to determine what you would have wanted. By naming a health care power of attorney, you can choose someone to make decisions on your behalf for a time when you may not be able to speak for yourself or make decisions for yourself. By both creating a living will and naming a health care power of attorney you can give your family the legal tools to take care of you the way you want. To find your state's advance directive forms, use our list of State-by-State Advance Directive Forms.

3. Share your decisions with your doctors. Once you have an idea of the type of medical care you'd like, sit down with your doctors to let them know about the decisions you've made. You may want to give them copies of your advance directive, let them know who your health care power of attorney is, and discuss the reasons behind your choices. By communicating your decisions with your doctors, you can be sure that the people managing your care know the choices you've made and will be able to work with your family to follow your wishes.

via Yahoo! News

One of the first things my mother did when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer was contact an estate attorney. She was always good at planning ahead, and she treated death no differently. On came a slew of paperwork, an advance health care directive, a living will, and executor and power of attorney appointments. My mother selected a funeral home, the cemetery and her own gravesite next to my father’s. The fact that she had done all this end-of-life prep didn’t make burying my mother any easier. But her planning made it possible for me to carry out her wishes, and that did bring me comfort.

There’s something called an ethical will that’s designed to pass on guiding principles, values and hopes for a family’s future. My mother never formally assembled an ethical will, but growing up in a household where my mother was always imparting a lesson—from compassion for others to table manners to how to cook asparagus—my mother’s ethical will (which was really more like an encyclopedia) had been ingrained in me. 

The most valuable lesson from my mother’s ethical encyclopedia is her insistence that I trust myself. She taught me to trust myself during times of indecision and to go against the grain of a group decision if my gut was telling me otherwise. “Always trust your feelings,” she’d say. This guiding principle has helped me find my way through several big financial decisions, professional challenges, and conflicts with friends. Of course I still struggle in moments of doubt, but I have my mother’s voice and faith urging me to follow her advice…which is to follow my own advice, and that gives me strength.

I miss my mom a lot, but I’ve been able to move forward without too much grief. I’m convinced that the main reason for this is because of the legacy of values and teachings my mother passed on to me. I don’t get paralyzed by obstacles (big or small) because I’m wondering what my mother would do—I know what she would do and how she would advise me. Her opinions on things that have transpired since her death have always been, and continue to be, crystal clear to me. 

I believe that the lessons my mother taught me were ways for her to prepare me for life without her. As grateful as I am for her fastidious attention to the administrative side of her end-of-life planning, it’s her ethical encyclopedia that is most valuable to me. She taught me that I would be okay without her and that I can be my own sounding board, my own advisor and my own moral compass. And that’s something that will extend her life and lessons far into my future.

In Issue 11 of The Magazine (a subscription-based online and iPhone/iPad app that features fascinating short articles on a range of often-tech-related topics), Jane Hodges writes about the death of her father. The essay is a moving portrait of her father and of her experience after his death, as she threw away his things. But what struck me as most profound in the piece was Hodges' description of her father's quality of life in the months before he died, and his isolation and withering sense of self that she believes ultimately caused his death. Though her father suffered from chronic heart problems and died of a heart attack, "in this daughter’s heart," she writes, "he died because his final freedom—the freedom to use technology and the identity he got from it—was abruptly struck from his life."

"Up until the hospitalization that put him into rehab," Hodges writes, "my father had succeeded in ignoring his own physical decline because he still had a life of the mind, thanks largely to technology." Though his physical health was dwindling, and he could no longer engage in many of the physical the activities that had brought him real pleasure throughout his life, Hodges' father was able to stay actively connected to the world. Though his body was failing him, his mind was not, and he was able to keep his mind and his self agile, engaged, and well fed.

But the rehab facility where he spent his last weeks did not allow laptops and had no wireless Internet access, anyway. "Without the distractions of laptop and log on, he saw how narrow the tunnel of his life had become." Her father was rarely able to leave the rehab facility because of his fragile health. His isolation from the world was at once physical and mental.

It was, physically, a heart attack that killed Jane Hodges' father. But in a more emotionally minded reality, we can understand his death as the death of his sense of self, with his body merely following. His independence was gone, his access to the things he loved had been taken from him, and he was confined to a space that was not his own. On top of these factors, he was physically unwell. How would any person—sick or well—feel in a situation like this?

In my mind, the question that Hodges is raising is: what do we want end-of-life to look like? When we approach death, what kind of life do we want to be leading? The issues of where we want to be, how we want to be treated, who we want to be with, and what we want to be doing in our final time are not to be taken lightly. Though we will all someday die, and though the cause will ultimately be physical, the quality of our mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual lives should not be discounted. These are, in the end, the things that make us who we are and give us reason to live.