The Hardest Thing about Death

Sivan Hermon
6 min readJul 6, 2023

Back in 2013 I read an article about why Gen Y will never be happy. I adopted this equation from it and made it my life hack:

In December 2022, after months of naively dismissing complaints about back and leg pain, we learned that my mother had stage 4 cancer. As my parents aged and since I’m 11 hours away from them by flight, I had been bracing for the day when my sisters would call me with alarming news. So when that day came, my first analytical reaction was, “Well, I’ve set my expectations low, so this is on par with expectations.” After all, my mother was 75 and had previously battled cancer. So now when reality hit, I was unfazed. Or so I thought.

My husband wasn’t sure how to react to my even keel in light of the news. On the one hand, he was probably happy to see that I wasn’t devastated, but on the other hand, he was concerned I might be in denial or not fully grasp the extent of her condition. “Stage 4 cancer is terminal”, he said. “I understand”, I replied. “Honey, you might be in denial” he tried. “No, I’ve been bracing for bad news, that’s why I’m ok” I rationalized (for him and myself).

It’s been almost 2 months since I lost my mother. In conversations with friends, I encountered a poignant description of grief: “Grief is like the ocean, it comes in waves”. Indeed my emotional state has been non-linear. Most of the time things feel normal, with an occasional wave washing over me causing tears to well up in my eyes.

Taking a page from mindfulness meditation, when sadness arises, I allow it to flow through me, and then let it pass. However, waves of grief feel more like overestimating your resilience to wasabi and taking a big bite of it. Your mouth fires up, and you start wondering if you can survive this gut-wrenching spike. But eventually, it passes, and everything returns to what it was before.

As I acclimated to this life-altering event, I pondered what makes death so difficult to cope with. My first conclusion was its finality. My second was the feeling of powerlessness. Eventually, I reached the most challenging aspect: the loss of hope for a resolution.

Finality

Death is undeniably final. I think we often glance over that fact, when experiencing death. I believe most people fully grasp the totality of death. There are no alternative solutions, nor workarounds. There is no way to negotiate it, undo, modify or reconcile.

Unlike other ending experiences in our lives, such as leaving a job, a place or breaking up with someone, where we entertain the idea of going back or changing the outcome, death offers no such optionality. “I can go back to Google if I really wanted to” — I tell myself. “I can move back to Israel” I console myself when I encounter challenging cultural gaps. Whether those options are feasible or not remains uncertain, but it gives me a sense of comfort thinking those doors are there and can potentially be reopened for comebacks and rebounds. Many times we, humans, lie to ourselves thinking we have control over our lives.

However, death does not offer optionality. One day my mother was lying warm in her hospital bed, and the next her body was deposited in the ground. It was made vividly clear that I can’t talk to my mother anymore and there is no way to undo that.

Powerless

In the days leading to her death, as I realized she is unlikely to come back to me, I combed through everything I knew about her condition, everything the doctors did for her and everything they told us. I kept searching for mistakes and points in time, where doing something differently might have changed the inevitable outcome. Each time a wave of hope washed through me, thinking I found something, it ultimately led to a dead end.

In the months leading to her death, I applied every professional skill in my toolbox. I scheduled bi-weekly meetings with my sisters, created a Trello board to manage tasks and statuses, maintained a running notes document to stay updated, and kept abreast of all the information we needed. I defused conflicts among my sisters, listened to their venting about each other, and reminded them of the value they brought to our team. I initiated and participated in team-building events. The team consisted of my sisters and me. I outsourced tasks that could be delegated and leaned on expert consultants for assistance. I flew in frequently to alleviate the burden on my sisters, rolled up my sleeves, and accompanied my mother to every doctor appointment. I promptly fulfilled any requests my mother had. Did she like hair color sticks by Revlon? No problem, take two of those, and an extra one from another company.

I poured my energy into finding a solution to the inevitable outcome of death. However, it had no effect on the final outcome. Despite all my skills, traits, creative problem-solving, financial resources, and efforts, they proved futile when confronted with death.

NeverEnding Story RockBiter

It reminded me of a powerful scene from “The NeverEnding Story” where the Rockbiter looks down at his hands and says “They look like big, good, strong hands, don’t they? My little friends.” … “I couldn’t hold on to them. I failed”. That’s how I felt. I thought I was competent. I thought I was capable. All my efforts, knowledge and skills could not help save my mother. The “Nothing” (i.e. cancer) took her despite all my efforts to protect her.

As I reflect on my endeavors to help my mom at the end of her life, I ask myself: What made me think I could or should stop this natural process? Why was I afraid of her death?

And the truth is, I didn’t need my mother to stay alive for her sake. She was ill and in a lot of pain. I needed her to stay alive for my sake, not only because I loved her and feared a world without her presence, but because I needed something from her.

Letting go of hope

For years, I tried to reshape my relationship with my mother, longing for her praise, attention, and appreciation. I clung to the hope that she would provide what she did not give me in life. However, the death of hope came with my mother’s passing.

The death of hope is more grief-stricken than death itself.

It signifies the loss of possibilities and a version of the future. While death is physical, hope is emotional.

As I continue to live, I am faced with a choice between letting the critique she shared with me as a child replay in my head, keeping me trapped in self-doubt and insecurity. Alternatively, I can focus on reconciliation and personal growth, evolving into an independent adult. When the next wave of tears or self critique washes over me, I shall watch it pass, and remind myself “it is what it is”, and carry forward. I will re-learn to live, love, and laugh despite the loss.

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Sivan Hermon

Leadership Coach, Speaker. ex-Google, Columbia MBA. Love helping humans through leadership, software and knowledge sharing. http://buymeacoffee.com/sivanhermon