My mother, Irene Parisi-Izzo passed away four years ago, just short of her 82nd birthday. Many of you have lost a parent, so you are familiar with the enormity of this loss, particularly on Mother’s Day every year.
Death is hard, especially when we say goodbye to someone we love deeply. Death is also a great teacher, if we are open to the deep lessons that come from the experience of loss. Steve Jobs once said that death was the greatest invention in the history of life, because it gives an urgency to how humans live, and all parts of nature rely on the process of death to adapt. Each generation of life, human and otherwise, tries to improve for the future.
Today I want to share the three lessons I learned at my mother’s bedside during the last week of her life. It was easily the most difficult week for me as I cried a million tears, but it was also the most meaningful time. The three lessons are Letting Go, Staying Open and Leaving Behind.
My mother and I were very close, especially in her later years, when she moved to Vancouver to be closer to me and my family. 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 could have been a better son; she urged me to let go and surrender to everything, 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 eventually I learned to surrender to each final moment.
My oldest daughter, Lena, was flying into Vancouver from the US while my mother’s life was slipping away. I clung so hard to the desire for my mom to hold on, but she was at peace in each moment. “If it’s to be, it will be, it will be ok.” When Lena’s flight was delayed by five hours and my mother lay unconscious, I held tightly to my wish 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 have learned that much of the happiness we create in life is done so through surrendering with curiosity and endless possibilities to the challenges we face. We must teach ourselves the practice of Letting Go.
The second lesson was Staying Open. One of my mother’s greatest gifts to me was her kind nature, which never showed judgment or prejudice. Except for those who were bullies, she always gave people the benefit of the doubt. She had a difficult life herself, and she was keenly aware that people cannot always control their circumstances in life. “Walk in someone’s shoes,” she would say, “before you judge them.”
Little did I know that I would be faced with re-learning that lesson. It happened most poignantly in the hospital when the patient on the other side of the curtain, a man in his late forties, was particularly loud. He had many guests and often had his TV on without a headset. His actions made me angry and I judged him to be rude and insensitive.
As the days passed, my mother had become very weak. When I arrived one morning, the man called me to his bedside. “What are you here for?” I asked him. He replied, “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 she is in distress, I ring my button for her.” The man I had judged was actually my mother’s guardian angel even though he was very sick and battling for his own life.
I thought of all the times we judge others without taking the time to know them and to understand their story. What a better world it would be if we all saw the goodness in others as my mother did. She was not naïve by any means, but she believed that if we look for truth and goodness in others, we are more likely to bring it out in them.
The final lesson was Leaving Behind. My mother was accustomed to sacrificing for others, and she gave me everything she could. She focused her life on how she could make things better for others in every situation. Even in those final hours, her main concern was not for herself, but whether I would manage in her death. The nurses even commented to me about how they could tell she was “a very good woman”. Throughout her pain, she was most concerned about the grief and sadness she was causing, and she was very worried about how her death would affect us afterwards.
Watching how she lived and died, I was reminded again that the great task of life is to make the world better for others because you were here. This is as true for every person, whether you are a mother and grandmother from New York City, or whether you are a world leader. The true test of our success is whether we improve life while we are here. As an author and professional speaker, I am challenged to get business leaders to think about their legacy, to ask “How do I want this company to be different because of my leadership,” “How can we positively impact society though our work,” and “What will I leave behind?”
My mother taught me so many things. She quietly stood up to racism in our neighbourhood during the 1960s, she railed against the loss of civility in society and raised me well, and she role modeled serving others with kindness and humility. And she showed me strength and integrity through the way she always spoke up for what she thought was right, even if it wasn’t popular.
I think there are three key questions we ought to ask ourselves 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 like with your parents, you will miss them incredibly when they are gone.
Four years later, I miss my mom every day. Her spirit remains close, and I think about all the things I would tell her. Sometimes I pick up the phone and start dialing her number automatically before I stop myself. I hope that if you can call your loved ones, and be there for them, please do it. COVID has undeniably created physical distance between all of us, and I hope that you will have a loving reunion with your family and friends when it is safe to visit and travel again.
The other final lesson is to live abundantly now, with gratitude and celebration. I spoke of 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 it should be your best.
With love for the memories of my mother, Irene Izzo-Parisi, and for all of you who have experienced loss. We are not alone, we are sharing the burden of grief and finding thanksgiving together.
Dr. John Izzo was a pioneer in the Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability movements and his vision for positive change and purpose in the world led to his work as a Founder of Blueprint. He is an adjunct professor in the UBC Faculty of Medicine and a professional speaker, business coach, and the author of nine bestselling books.