Recently Lindsey Mead Russell, my friend and business school classmate, and I both lost someone very dear to us. Lindsey’s 94 year old grandfather died in August and my beloved 12 year-old dog Kobe passed away in September. What they had in common were long, full lives and relatively short illnesses at the end.
After emailing back and forth about this topic a few times, we realized that we should share the exchange. Here is a rough transcript, including the introduction that Lindsey wrote on her blog.
Chris and I didn’t know each other that well at HBS. We have
developed a friendship since then that I prize highly, and it
occasionally produces thoughtful exchanges like the one we had almost
two years ago about optimism, the underrated virtues of melancholy, and
the conundrum of memory.
Our recent conversation, about grief, the way it can derail even the
most prepared people, and how we talk to our children about death, began
when I commented on Chris’s thoughtful post about Kobe’s death. Chris
and I are the same age, 38 (Chris is still 37 for another three weeks,
he wanted me to note!), and I think that’s relevant here, as we both
careen into middle age and towards the inevitable passing of the
generation(s) above us. Our conversation was a powerful reminder that
try as we may to prepare, life’s losses will startle and destabilize
us. Here’s what we shared:
So sorry, Chris. I love the way you describe Kobe, and in particular how you enriched these last few months. Xo
Thanks Lindsey! As you know yourself, I find writing therapeutic.
Writing out my thoughts helps me get them out of my head. It’s going to
be a tough conversation with the kids tonight.
Oh, wow. Yes, it is.
Talking to Grace and Whit about Pops’ passing was difficult because
this is their first real experience of death. I found they were
interested in both the enormously granular details: what does the urn
look like? Do the bones burn when you cremate someone? What happens to
his clothes? And in the biggest of the big picture questions, also:
where does Pops go? Is he able to see Gaga (my deceased grandmother)
I love how you said that no matter what walls of rationality we
erect, the experience of losing someone dear smashes through them. I
had this experience with my grandfather’s death last month. Yes, he was
94. And of course it was not a surprise, at least intellectually. But
it was still a loss, and still sad, and though I know people mean well
when they point out what a wonderful and full life he had it somehow
feels like they are denying the loss. I hope that you aren’t feeling
that way when people comment on how marvelous Kobe’s time here was.
It’s funny how kids fixate on the specific details. Marissa, for
example, saw one of those Discovery Channel specials on one of those
services that stuffs your pets after they pass away. She asked me if we
could get Kobe stuffed. In the end, I decided I didn’t even want her
ashes. I have many wonderful things to remind me of Kobe, including a
host of photos and videos. I don’t need some carbon atoms that happened
to be in her body at the end.
I do appreciate all the well wishes from friends—it’s amazing how
much you hear from folks on Twitter and Facebook as well. The thing is,
the people who point out what a wonderful life she had are right—she
did have a wonderful life, a fact which I’m sure I’ll appreciate much
more in a few weeks.
I remember writing about this at some point in time—like many people,
I deceive myself into believing that I can fix anything. Whatever the
problem, I can pull some strings, or talk to someone, and I can make it
go away. But when cancer comes knocking, there’s no insider you can
turn to, no secret treatments. It doesn’t matter how much money you
have, or how many people you know.
And that’s scary as hell, especially for folks who are used to thinking of themselves as bulletproof.
Life has a way of reminding us that we’re not, and that’s something we just have to accept.
I so utterly, absolutely agree. And maybe this is just a classic
thing to happen in your late 30s, this reminder. I look ahead and I see
so much mortality and stuff we can’t control ahead, just as I had
started feeling like I have a vague handle on it. And now I am newly
aware that I certainly do not.
This year has been one long message from the world. From Kobe’s
death, to my friend Don’s successful fight with cancer, to my having to
walk with a cane for two months because of my own misadventure. While
I’ve adamantly insisted that these are just freak occurrences, and not
the signs of age, I’m starting to lose that conviction.
When I’m focused on other things, I can pretend that Kobe’s death was
just a dream, and that she’ll return from a trip, same as ever. But
whenever I really think about it, I can’t escape the images and
memories. I notoriously hate hospitals. And no matter how kind and
helpful the doctors were, all I can remember is Kobe getting weaker and
weaker until finally she couldn’t even stand. That’s a concrete reality
that changed how I look at the world.
I knew that Kobe would die someday, just like I know that my parents
will die someday, just like I know that I will die someday. But until a
week or two ago, that was an abstract, far-off knowledge. Now it’s all
I’ll admit that in the past week I’ve thought about how it will feel
when my parents die. I’ve even thought about my own death. I imagine
that I’ll fight to the end, but if I lose consciousness, death may take
But I’ve also learned a lot about grief and grieving. Kobe was a
daily part of our lives, which means we’re surrounded by reminders of
her. I decided that the best thing to do was to face them head on, and
focus on the happy memories.
I placed a canvas print of Kobe above our kitchen table, so that we
all see her at every meal. Quite coincidentally, I had just ordered a
photobook of Kobe’s pictures—the most recent was taken the week before
her death—Marissa had dressed her in a bikini top and grass skirt, and
she’s looking at the camera with the same expression of patience she
always had with Marissa. Both Alisha and I have taken to looking at the
book every day. While it brings up the pangs of grief, seeing all
those happy pictures pushes those hospital images out of my mind and
lets me focus on happy memories.
What you say about death being abstract until, suddenly,
horrifyingly, it is concrete resonates with me. I know that a large
part of my grief about my grandfather’s death was my anxiety about
advancing another step on the big board game of life. Now my parents
are the only generation above me. And of course this has implications
for them that scare me: thinking about my parents being ill or –
devastatingly – passing away absolutely cripples me. I can’t even begin
to fathom what that will be like. Some of it is more selfish, I
suspect, too. We grow ever closer to the top of that ferris wheel, as I
often think of it. Before we know it, it will be us and just us.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about moving into midlife, into the
afternoon of life (as Jung called it), and how my children are coming
into full bloom just as I begin to sense those ahead of me fading. Not
my parents, yet (and what a blessing that is) but others around me.
It’s a multi-layered thing. It’s teaching my children about death.
It’s watching them deal with it for the first time. It’s realizing that
I can be distracted from my own grief because I’m so busy taking care
of theirs. It’s learning to sink into my role as the center of a
family, and accepting the sometimes-heavy responsibilities that go with
that. It’s not easy, and sometimes – often – I just want to curl up on
my grandparents’ couch, fall asleep, and have my young, vibrant father
scoop me up and carry me to the twin bed upstairs that used to be my
mother’s when she was a girl.
One memory that has always stuck with me is the day my grandfather
died. It was 1986, so I think I was 11 going on 12. My grandfather
passed away quite suddenly of a heart attack while undergoing dental
surgery. I was sad when my mother told me, of course, but what I always
remember is when she told my father. This was before cell phones, so
he had no idea that his father had passed away until my mother told
him. She pulled him aside to their bedroom for privacy, so I didn’t see
when she told him. When I next saw him, it was clear that he had been
weeping. In my entire life, I had never seen my father cry until that
day. I’m sure that he knew his father would die someday, but it was
still a terrible blow.
As we rise up that Ferris wheel, I think the greatest comfort we can
have is our children, and our children’s children. Think of the Bible,
and its endless droning litany of descendants. Yet as I get older, I
begin to appreciate the power of that litany.
Scientists tell us that as we get older, time passes ever more
quickly for us. By the time we reach age 13, we’ve lived half of our
subjective life (your 80th year passes a lot more quickly than your 5th).
Kind of depressing. But life gives us a way to fight that passage.
When I’m with Jason and Marissa, time passes much more slowly (this
isn’t always a good thing!). As parents, I think we get great joy and
benefit out of seeing the world through our children’s eyes. Then, as
the wheel continues to turn, we see the world through our
grandchildren’s eyes, and if we’re lucky like your grandfather, our
When I talk to people about parenting, I tell them, “There is no
substitute for having children.” I always meant it in the economic
sense of substitution, i.e. there is no equivalent experience. But now I
see that having children is probably the most common yet fundamental
way we have of defying the passage of time, aging, and the inevitability
of death. To create life, however transitory, is the strongest
statement we can make about our existence.