12. How to Die
The point of the party is not your leaving it. Apologize for any breakage, thank your hosts, listen when they say they were glad you could come, mean it when you say you had a wonderful time, then grab your coat and go. Make sure the door closes behind you. Don't forget your hat.
21. How to Grieve
"After the first death, there is no other," wrote Dylan Thomas. That doesn't mean the ones that come after won't break your heart, but it's the first that punches your soul's passport. Welcome, fellow human, to a different country than the one you woke up to this morning. The air's different here; so is the scenery. Your knees don't work so well; in fact, you may want to fall to them.
For a precious little while, you are allowed to be stunned into silence, or to shriek, or to talk—recounting stories of who he was, what she meant to you, and how it all came to an end. Tell those stories. Some people may try to enforce "The Rules," to wit: Enough of This Drama Is Enough. Ignore them. Besides, if you treat yourself gently and take the time you need, someday soon you'll hear the faint but steady voice of your own good sense. Play music you love, sit in the sunshine if you can find some, and if anyone offers you a hand, hold it. Let them feed the cat, too, because they want to be useful. If your good sense does not kick in on its own, help it along: scramble some eggs. It will feel strange at first. But if you pretend that scrambling eggs is normal, eventually it will become normal. Soon you can squeeze some orange juice, too.
For some of us the stay in this new country seems endless. But time passes, seasons change, and, truly, would those we grieve for want us to mope? Come with me, back into the world. We'll return to this land someday, all too soon, but in the meantime the garden needs weeding, the bills need paying. Your other loved ones need you. And you, my sweet friend, you could use a shampoo. —Larkin Warren
24. Deliver Bad News
(Maureen Killackey, M.D., oncologist, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York City)
* Do it in private. And don't wedge it in between your lunch date and your yoga class. Nothing hurts worse than "Now that I've broken your heart, gotta run!" Making yourself available will reassure the other person that you care about his or her feelings.
* Go slowly. When people are in shock, they don't process information well. Pause between bombshells to ask "Are you understanding what I'm saying?"
* The six worst words to use in this situation are "I know just how you feel." Better: "I can't imagine how this feels."
* Develop a plan. Action steps are important to helping the other person realize there is a way to deal with a difficult situation.
26. Raise Teenagers
(Henry Winkler, father of three)
You know what I learned to do? I learned to shut up. I used to talk so much, thinking I was passing on these important lessons. I'd tell my son Max, "Sit down at your desk. You can't stand and do homework. You can't lie on your bed and do homework. You can't listen to music and do homework." But when I calmed down, the grades were there. He was standing at his desk, he was lying on his bed, he was listening to music, and he was thriving. I'd been giving him advice I'd heard all my life, but it turned out not to be true.
39. Make Peace With Your Parents
If the population scientists are right and life expectancies continue to rise, we'll soon see an unprecedented demographic pileup, a strange passage of late adulthood in which everyone in their 60s still has living parents. Expect some awkwardness: millennia of evolution have failed to equip either generation for such an extended voyage. How, for example, should you define caregiving roles when you and Dad both need hip replacements? Or gracefully accept unsolicited motherly advice on your grandparenting skills? The bonus time you have with your parents will be much more pleasant if you remember the following:
Your parents won't change. The dynamics of the parent-offspring relationship are hard-wired during adolescence. Even if scientists keep your mother alive for 300 years, she will never stop commenting on your hair, or lack thereof. She may surprise you in other ways—she might learn how to download ring tones or eat cilantro or blog. But the big things, those are set. And that will never stop driving you crazy. A 65-year-old friend of mine likes to complain about her mother's inflexibility. Her mother is 100. "It's like she'll never change!" the woman marvels, as if it is not unreasonable to expect growth from someone born when the Great White Fleet sailed. The push and pull is as it should be. Unraveling the central riddle of existence—how did these two strange people create me?—is the job of a lifetime. The hopeless optimism that demands progress in a relationship with our parents is the same force that will cure cancer and colonize Mars. "They are what they are," we may tell ourselves. Then we pick at the lock, right up to the end. —David Dudley
47. How to Be Afraid
Remember, fear is human.