What I Learned During My Mother’s Death

What I Learned During My Mother’s Death

As some of you may know, my mother passed away six weeks ago now, just short of her 82nd birthday. I appreciate the many well wishes I received from so many of you. Many of you have lost a parent so know the enormity of this loss. Though I usually use this space to provide leadership tips, this month I wanted to share some reflections on life.

Death is hard especially when saying goodbye to someone we love deeply. Death is also a great teacher if we are open to its lessons. Steve Jobs once said that death was the greatest invention in the history of life, because it gives an urgency to how we live and is used by nature to adapt. Each generation of life, human and otherwise, tries to improve the future.

Today I want to share the three lessons learned at my mother’s bedside that last week of her life. It was easily the most difficult week of my life as I cried a million tears, but also the most meaningful. The three lessons are Letting Go, Staying Open and Leaving Behind.

Letting Go

My mother and I were very close, especially in her later years. As the only child of a single mother we had a special bond. We only found out she had cancer a few weeks before she died. There wasn’t much time to let go. In the final days of her life she taught me a great deal about letting go. I watched as she gently released all the regrets in her life. She challenged me to put aside any feelings that I might have done more to be a great son; she urged me to let go and surrender to even death and to be curious about what this might teach me. Each day I had to practice letting go of my desire to control life, to change the past and to surrender to each moment.

My oldest daughter Lena could not come to mom’s bedside until four days into her hospital stay and her life was slipping away. I clung so hard for my mom to hold on for that last goodbye but she merely surrendered to the moment. “If it’s to be, it will be, it will be ok.” When my daughter’s flight was delayed by five hours and my mother lay unconscious, I held on so tightly to the need for them to have a goodbye, until I finally I had to let it go. Though in the end mom hung on so they had a loving and peaceful farewell, the beauty of that moment of surrender has stayed with me.

I remembered how so much of happiness in life is surrendering with curiosity to the challenges we face.

Staying Open

The second lesson was Staying Open. One of my mother’s greatest gifts to me was her non- judgmental nature. Except for those who were bullies, she always gave people the benefit of the doubt. “Walk in someone’s shoes” she would say, “before you judge”. Little did I know that I would have the chance to re-learn that lesson in her final week. It happened most poignantly when the man who shared the room with her, a man in his late forties, was particularly loud. He had many guests and often had his TV on without a headset. I judged him to be an insensitive person.

Then as three days passed, my mother had become very weak. When I arrived one morning the man called to me. “What are you here for?” I asked. “Well, I have been battling cancer for almost ten years now, and it looks like I am finally losing.” He then went on, “your mother is really struggling now. Sometimes at night she can’t ring her call button for help. But I want you to know I have been listening for her and when I hear her struggling, I ring my button for her.” The man I had judged was a guardian angel for my mother even though he himself was battling for life.

I couldn’t help but think of all the times we judge others without truly taking the time to know their story. What a better world it would be if we all saw others as my mother did. She was not naïve by any means, but she believed that if we see goodness in others we are more likely to bring it out in them.

Leaving Behind

The final lesson was Leaving Behind. My mother focused most of her life on how she could make things better for others. Even in those final hours, her main concern was not for herself but whether I would be fine. The nurses even commented to me about how they could tell she was “a very good woman”. Even in pain, she was most concerned about what she left behind and worried about how her death would affect the rest of us.

Watching how she lived and died, I was reminded again that the great task of life is to live so that life is better for others because you were here. This is as true for a person as it is for a leader and even a society. The true test of our success is whether we improve life while we are here. So much of my life is spent trying to get leaders to think about their legacy, to ask “How do I want this company and the larger society to be different because of my leadership?”, and “What will I leave behind?”

My mother taught me so many things. The way she quietly stood up to racism as I grew up in the United States, the way she railed against the loss of civility in society, how she role modeled kindness and her belief that we are here to serve. The way she always spoke up for what she thought was right even if it wasn’t popular.

It made me think that there are really three questions we ought to ask every day of our lives:  What did I stand up for today? Did I leave everyone I met today better than I found them? Did how I lived today help leave a positive legacy for the future?

The Biggest Lesson

Perhaps the biggest lesson from her death is the most obvious. Cherish those you love right now. Be kind, be generous, and if there is something you must say, this is the moment. Years ago, a wise man told me that no matter what your relationship is with your parents you will miss them incredibly when they are gone. Often, I forget and think I must call my mother. If you can call your loved ones, see them, be there for them, do it. Do it now.

The other obvious lesson is to live now. For years I have taught this in my books The Five Secrets and The Five Thieves of Happiness, but today I feel it in my bones. This is the day, now is the moment, to enjoy each day, to live as if it could be your last and should be your best.

With love for my mother, Irene Izzo-Parisi and all those parents out there. Thank you.


Dr. John Izzo has spoken to over one million people, advised over 500 companies, authored six best-selling books, and helped some of the world's most admired companies. He has been a pioneer in creating successful businesses and emerging work trends for over twenty-five years.

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