I graduated from business school four months after my mother died. Shortly before graduation weekend, an out-of-town friend called me and said that she wanted to come to my graduation. She insisted that I not feel pressured to include her in any pre-planned activities; she just wanted to be there, watch me graduate, and give me a hug afterward. She never directly said that she wanted to come because of my mother’s death or because she wanted to support me during a weekend punctuated by proud parents and family revelry. But her message was loud and clear.

There were other friends, and even people who I didn’t know very well, who did selfless favors, drove hours out of their way, and made sacrifices, never expecting a favor or even a thank you in return. Those people were my heroes. And this inherent goodness in the people who surrounded me made me feel extraordinary lucky during a time when I otherwise would have felt hopelessly desolate.

In the wake of the terrible tragedy in Boston, I have been reminded of my heroes all week. When I read about the Cowboy Hat Hero or the marathoners who crossed the finish line and kept running to the closest hospital to donate blood, my heart grows just a little larger. Because the truth is, no matter what disaster befalls us, whether it is a terminal illness or cowardly act of terror, the goodness in people will always beat the darkness in one. More lives were saved on Monday than were lost because of these heroes. And when you think the darkest time in your life will leave an enduring, deep scar that will never heal, you’ll find that the love, altruism, and selflessness of others will leave a mark that’s much more prominent.

Today is National Healthcare Decisions Day, a day to inspire and encourage everyone to create advance health care directives. Today, we'd like to help you to start talking to your loved ones about your end-of-life wishes.

An advance directive is a legal tool for stating how you'd like to be treated at the end of life, including the types of medical treatments you'd like or would not like, the type of environment you'd like to be in, and who should make your health care decisions for you if you become unable to speak for yourself.

An advance directive is composed of two parts:

1. Naming a health care power of attorney, who can advocate for your care when you may not be able to
2. Creating a living will, stating the types of medical treatments you do and do not want at the end of your life

There are two main reasons to create an advance directive:

1. To make your wishes known so that your family can care for you in the ways you want at the last stage of your life
2. To relieve your family of the burden of having to make these tough decisions at a difficult time

If you haven't done so yet, check out our directory of State-by-State Advance Directive Forms, find your state's forms, and start filling them out. And if you've already named a health care power of attorney, be sure to direct them to our article on How to Be a Good Health Care Power of Attorney.

Happy National Healthcare Decisions Day. We hope the last stage of your life is wonderful.

What does a good death look like? Photographer Joshua Bright offers one answer to this question with a series of photographs chronicling the end-of-life and death of John Hawkins, a New York City resident, and his relationship with his friend and Zen Buddhist priest Robert Chodo Campbell.

Bright writes:

We could use news of a good death. Not a tragic death or a famous death, just a good one, the kind that might happen to any of us if we are lucky.

Spending time with these photos, there really is a sense of "lucky." Here is an intimate portrait of two friends spending quality, loving time together, one caring for the other, as death approaches. These photos aren't sad, even though John is dying: he is surrounded by people who want to care for him, and that care is based on love and intimacy and meaningful attention. And after John dies, Robert continues to offer him loving care, further illustrating the almost-beautiful experience these two friends shared.

via New York Times

Today Google announced a new program to help you control your Gmail and other Google accounts after you die. The program is called Inactive Account Manager, and allows you to have your data deleted or your accounts shared if those accounts become inactive for a certain amount of time.

From Google:

You can tell us what to do with your Gmail messages and data from several other Google services if your account becomes inactive for any reason. For example, you can choose to have your data deleted — after three, six, nine or 12 months of inactivity.


Right now, most online media companies (including social media, email and communication, photo and image sharing, etc.) are legally forbidden from disclosing content or granting account access to a third party without the consent of the owner—even if the owner has died, or left those accounts to someone in a will. We think Inactive Account Manager is a huge step forward in helping people manage digital accounts and digital afterlives. Thanks for getting onboard, Google.

via Google Public Policy Blog

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.