A dear friend of mine is dealing with the imminent death of her 98-year old mother. Her parents have been married for 72 years and the next days and perhaps weeks loom large. I walked this path with my own father a few years ago. My mother passed away over 40 years ago at the age of 46, and her death was jarring, disjointed and exposed the fault-lines of my young life. As a family, our reaction was communal denial, which resulted in years of dysfunction. I was determined with my father to be more intentional about my actions and thoughts during his short illness and time in hospice at the age of 86. His was a “good death.” My memories of my father are definitely tinged by how his life ended.
There is quite a bit of research about the importance of endings. It turns out that we form biased memories of our experiences based on how the experience ends. The biases can go in both positive and negative directions according to Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who refers to this phenomenon as the “peak-end rule. ” An event makes its mark in our memories more by what happens at its end than at any prior point.
This importance of endings applies also to experiences that are not life and death. A vacation that is plagued with travel hassles in the beginning, but is blessed with days on the beach, gorgeous sunsets and an uneventful trip home will be remembered much more positively than if the travel hassles come at the end of the trip.
Anyone who has ever overseen a change initiative in their organization knows that it can be an emotionally-fraught experience for employees. The biggest mistake leaders make is in trying to minimize the feelings associated with what is ending in the organization – whether leaving an old building, discarding a beloved computer system, or re-organizing organizational structures. Endings are important, and quoting one of my favorite lines from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, “Attention must be paid.”“I don't say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”
P.S. I wrote this blog a week or so before publication. Since then my friend’s mother has passed away. I attended the private, grave-side service and it was the absolute best “attention” that could be paid. Children and grandchildren told stories of their “fierce” mother whose gruff exterior occasionally slipped to show the deep love inside. Two young great-granddaughters toddled around the casket reminding us that life indeed does go on. These women who lived through the depression, the war (she served in the WAVES during WWII), the stifling 50s and 60s, were made of tough stuff. She was looking forward to voting for the first female president of the United States and asked that all memorials go towards helping electing Hillary Clinton. We, the daughters and granddaughters of these women, need to remember upon whose shoulders we stand. Thank-you, Ardell. May you rest in peace!