What I Learned from the Deaths of My Father and Brother

What positives could possibly come from losing both my father and my brother to pancreatic cancer? A recent column by acclaimed author Arthur Brooks poses an intriguing oxymoron: thinking about your death can actually increase your happiness. Per Brooks, “contemplating your mortality might sound morbid, but it’s actually a key to happiness.” How is that possible?

Brooks says, “Death is hard to think about. We tend to avoid the subject…But when we focus on death, that increases the stakes at play in the present, and clarifies what we should do with our time.” Realizing our days are limited makes us realize how precious they are. It helps us focus on filling our time with joy and meaning. Brooks promotes prioritizing “love and relationships.” He asks, “Are you neglecting your family life today? Your friendships? Your spiritual development?”

Brooks begins his column with the inspiring story of Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who taught his last class on September 18, 2007. In that last lecture, Professor Pausch announced his diagnosis with terminal pancreatic cancer. Although he would soon leave behind a wife and three young kids, his message was “a celebration of life and love…” Pausch was putting on a masterclass in happiness by leaning into the reality of his own death.”

Here’s another story of a 43-year-old who is turning his terminal cancer diagnosis into something positive. In his final weeks, Nick Hungerford, co-founder of Nutmeg which sold for $700 million, is creating the charity Elizabeth’s Smile (named for his young daughter) to support children who lose a parent to terminal illness. He described it as a “‘great privilege’ to ‘feel the love’ of his family and friends despite facing death.”

This gets very personal for me, given that my father and my brother Irwin also died too young from pancreatic cancer. As a parting gift to me, Irwin held onto life long enough to provide blood for genetic testing, dying only moments later. Thankfully, comparing my blood to Irwin’s revealed no known gene predisposing me to cancer. Nevertheless, losing two first-degree relatives to pancreatic cancer still puts me in the “high risk” category. I enrolled in an early detection program at UT Southwestern, and so far my seven annual MRIs have come out clean. As I approach my 69th birthday in two weeks, I don’t take my health or my life for granted. As Brooks teaches, I’m filled with gratitude, and my top priorities are spending time with loved ones and creating memorable moments.

At this year’s Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders Meeting, I asked Warren Buffett to share estate planning advice, and his answer shows he and Arthur Brooks are aligned. Buffett suggests writing your own obituary now and “reverse engineering” to live life in a way that will make that obituary come true. As an assignment from my TIGER 21 group, I actually wrote my obituary. Like Buffett, I recommend it. It’ll set your priorities straight.

In writing my obituary, I was guided by another author by the name of Brooks—David Brooks—and his book The Road to Character. David Brooks helped me distinguish between “Resume Marvin” and “Eulogy Marvin.” The focus of my obituary is not on my resume lines, rather on what really matters in living a meaningful life. On their deathbed, people don’t say they wished they’d worked harder or had more things. According to Arthur Brooks, what they care about is “activities that yield meaning, such as practicing religion, appreciating beauty, or spending more time with loved ones.” I’ve also actually been told by clients on their deathbed that having their estate plan in order provided them peace of mind, the feeling of a parting gift to their family.

Being aware that each of us will one day be gone doesn’t have to be morbid. Let’s use that awareness to make the most of each day, get our affairs in order, and work on creating a lasting legacy. As Arthur Brooks concludes: “Look at the sapling you plant today, and imagine your great-granddaughter sitting under the mature tree.” Let’s go plant a tree that will one day yield fruit and shade for our loved ones, known in Hebrew as an “etz chaim”—a tree of life.

Marvin E. Blum

This old Blum family portrait shows Julius, Elsie, Irwin, and a very young Marvin Blum. Daddy and Irwin both died way too young from pancreatic cancer. Now it’s just Mama and me.