Life & DeathOctober 23, 2020
As we can’t look away from the Mayor of America’s one-man luge, and the head-on collision of multitasking and Zoom, we risk losing sight of the profound: Americans are dying from the novel coronavirus at a greater velocity than any crisis in our nation’s history.
Childhood, education, failure, success, and relationships shape us. But I’d posit that what defines us is life and death — bringing a child into the world and losing someone you love. Not the moment of birth or death, but the proximate before and after. More people are losing more people than at any point in our history.
In the past week, I’ve received five emails (usually on LinkedIn for some reason) from people seeking guidance on how to provide a sick parent a good death. Below is a similar email I received two years ago on the topic, and my response. It’s never felt more relevant than it does today. The logistics of taking care of loved ones during Covid may look different, but the groundwork is the same.
Hi Professor Galloway,
I am reaching out because I trust your opinion and would love your advice. I am 26 and have been building a career in digital marketing at a consumer products company.
In January my dad was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer, and I have made the decision to move back home to be with him and my mom. I have been planning on continuing to work … but have this nagging feeling that it’s not worth it, and the extra money is not as valuable as full days with my family during this time. Still I am worried that halting my learning right now will hinder my career in the long run.
I wish my dad was able to help me answer this question with a clear head and from an unbiased place. I would love your opinion on this as a second-best option!
I’m sorry about your dad. I have no real credentials nor empirical data around providing comfort to sick parents. What I can tell you is what I did when my mom was sick and what I learned. It’s key to point out, however, that I was in a different stage in my career. I was 39 and had established some professional stature and economic security, which in your twenties you likely don’t have. These are very personal decisions. A lot of it boils down to your relationship with your parents, logistics, and resources. So, with that, some learnings:
My mom was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer and was given three months to live. She asked me if I could help her die at home, and I agreed. I moved in with her so we could spend time together and make her exit more dignified. She passed seven months later at home.
Learning: Where you die, and who is around you at the end is a strong signal of your success or failure in life. I believe it doesn’t matter how nice your home is; if at your exit you’re surrounded by strangers under bright lights, it’s a disappointment. Granted this isn’t an option for many people, but if you die at home, surrounded by people who love you, you are a success. It’s a sign that you forged meaningful relationships and that you were generous with people.
Learning: Give care to the caregivers. My mom’s four sisters and best friend each spent 3-4 weeks living with us helping to care for her. This was key, as there were things I couldn’t help with. One way I was able to add value was to help make their stay more enjoyable. One of my aunts loved to talk; I do not. I speak for a living, and when I’m home I want to hear my kids’ and my wife’s voices, but I don’t say much. But with her, we’d stay up late and talk for hours, about nothing.
Another aunt likes to drink and gamble. I’d take her to a bad casino in Summerlin, Nevada, give her $100, and sit with her at a $.25 roulette table as she drank White Russians. She’d get drunk and start flirting. She once took a guy’s cowboy hat off, placed it over his crotch, and screamed, “The cowboy’s a goner!” I don’t even know what that means. Several times I wanted to shoot myself in the face. But my roulette-playing, White Russian–drinking aunt was showering my mom every morning, and I loved her for it.
My mom’s best friend, Karsen, was a raging alcoholic. She was also addicted to painkillers — three years later she was one of the 46,000 people who die from opioids each year. Karsen just wanted someone to drink with after my mom was asleep. Take your mom to the movies, go out for lunch, and take walks together. She has a tough road ahead of her being the primary caregiver for your dad.
Learning: Boundaries. Your dad’s remaining days on this planet are important, and so are yours. You need to have your own life/space. I left every Thursday and went to NYC or Miami to keep friendships and work somewhat alive. Economic security is key, and for that at your age you need to establish professional momentum. I’d speculate your dad would appreciate you adapting your life, but not transforming it or putting your career on hold. You will likely have kids of your own, and your parents’ grandkids will also need a dad who can provide for them and feels relevant professionally. Only you can decide what this balance is.
People often outlive their prognoses. My mom was given three months, and lived another four. Unfortunately, one Sunday I flew back, and she had passed 30 minutes earlier. I wish I’d been there, but I wouldn’t change the approach. Had I not had some semblance of a life, I would have been less pleasant to be around (and I’m not that pleasant to begin with). On one of those weekends I met someone who, two years later, I had a son with, and then another. Had I not attended to my own life/needs/happiness, my mom likely wouldn’t have grandkids. She’d be pleased to know I have a son who looks like her, and whose middle name is hers, Sylvia.
Learning: Shared media. My mom and I both love TV, and we watched a ton of it together. It was awesome. Frasier, Jeopardy, Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends. What’s the media your dad enjoys? If it’s books, read to him; music, listen together. Watch his favorite movies.
Learning: Relive his life. Looking at pictures and asking my mom to share stories from her childhood and adulthood was rewarding for us and gave her a chance to live her life again. Facilitate this as much as possible.
Learning: Nothing unsaid. Impossible to say “I love you,” or how much you admire your father, too much. Impossible. I used to sit next to my mom on the couch, hold her hand, weep, and tell her how sad I was she was sick.
Learning: People will surprise/disappoint you. My mom had several close friends who never visited or even called much. It was as if they were worried they might catch her cancer. I don’t think these were bad people, they just dealt with it differently. Conversely, her last boss, a successful guy 20 years younger than her, with his own family, would get on a plane every four weeks, come sit by my mom’s side (where she would vomit into a plastic container every 15 minutes), and would talk to her for an hour before heading back to the airport.
Learning: It’s the illness speaking. My mom was remarkably good-spirited through the process. However, it’s not uncommon for people to be unreasonable, even mean toward the end. It’s the illness speaking. To the extent you can, ignore it.
What I Know
As the father of two, I can somewhat relate to your dad. I think about the end a lot, so I can make better choices today. At the end, I believe parents want two things:
- To know their family loves them immensely.
- To recognize that their love and parenting gave their children the skills and confidence to add value and live rewarding lives.
Your message and LinkedIn profile confirm your father has achieved both these things. It must be a huge source of comfort for him to have such an impressive son.
P.S. If you watched The Social Dilemma (highly recommended), or even if you didn’t, you’d like my conversation with Roger McNamee, early Facebook investor and advisor to Zuck who appears in the movie, on this week’s podcast.