How to Deal with the End of a Life

Advice on what to do and some things to expect when someone close to you is dying

Scott Galloway
May 16 · 7 min read

The day after I spoke at a conference hosted by an internet giant, I got four messages on LinkedIn: three from people saying nice things about the talk and looking to connect, and one that rattled me. A twenty-six-year-old total stranger was asking me for advice. The message is below (I’ve changed her name and some details for anonymity).

Subject: Inquiry for Life Advice

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 X. It has been a great opportunity to work with a passionate team on many data sets to solve uncommon creative problems and inform product development.

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!


Dear X,

I’m sorry about your dad. First, some fine print. I have no real credentials nor empirical data around providing comfort to sick parents. These are very personal decisions. 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 at 26 you likely don’t have. There’s no user manual around this stuff. A lot of it boils down to your relationship with your parent, logistics, and resources. So, with that: My mom was diagnosed with metastatic 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, at a retirement community in Summerlin, Nevada, so we could spend time together and make her exit more dignified… she passed seven months later at home. Where you die, and who is around you at the end, is a strong signal of your success or failure in life.

Learning: 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. My mom had no education, was divorced, and worked as a secretary. She drew her last breath at home, comfortable and surrounded by people who loved her immensely. If you and your family can arrange for your father to die at home, you are doing something loving and kind for your dad.

Learning: Give 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 just loved to talk — I don’t. I speak for a living, but when I’m home I want to hear my kids’ and wife’s voices and I don’t say much. However, I’d stay up late with her and talk for hours, about nothing.

Another aunt likes to drink and gamble. I’d take her to a bad casino in Summerlin, give her $100, and sit with her at a $.25 roulette table as she drank White Russians. She’d get drunk and start flirting with any guy who had the misfortune of rolling up with quarters to our table. 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 after my mom passed she was one of the 40,000 people who die from opioids each year. I’d bring her Johnnie Walker Blue Label Scotch (she usually drank Red), and we’d make Hot Pockets and wash them down with Scotch, almost every night. 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. When my mother was ill, I left every Thursday and went to NYC or Miami to keep friendships and work somewhat alive. Your accomplishments indicate your parents were able to create a positive environment to raise you in. Key to this is economic security, which at your age you need professional momentum to establish. 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 mom who can provide for them, and feels relevant professionally. Only you can decide what this balance is.

People often outlive their prognosis. My mom was given three months but lived seven. Unfortunately, one Sunday I flew back, and she had passed 30 minutes earlier. I wish I’d been there, but would not 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). It would have brought down the vibe substantially. On one of those weekends away I met someone who, two years later, I had a son with, and then another. Had I not attended to my own life, needs, and 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 Sylvia.

Learning: Shared media. My mom and I both love TV, and we watched a shit-ton 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, and weep and tell her how sad I was she was sick.

Learning: People will surprise and 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. His name is Bob Perkowitz and he’s not just successful, but kind.

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:

1. To know their family loves them immensely.

2. 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 daughter.

Warm regards,

Scott


Excerpted from The Algebra of Happiness: Notes on the Pursuit of Success, Love, and Meaning by Scott Galloway, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Scott Galloway, 2019.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Scott Galloway

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Professor of Marketing @NYUStern · Founder @L2_digital @redenvelope @prophetBrand · Contributor @bloombergtv Weekly musings: profgalloway.com

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.