What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Die

An Invaluable End-of-Life Manual for Gen-Xers Staring Into the Abyss

By the time we started having children, my generation had a vast catalog of books, many of them quite helpful, letting us know what to expect at every mini-phase of pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing. Nothing can ever quite prepare you for the reality of being a parent. Kids have a way of surprising. But anyone who finds themselves surprised by the general outlines either isn’t paying attention or deliberately wears blinders.

At the other end of life’s conga line, death remains cloaked in taboo. We know it’s there, but we kind of prefer not to think about it. But now terrified Gen-Xers, more gaslit by The Grim Reaper than they are by Donald Trump, have their What To Expect When You’re Expecting, death edition. A Beginners Guide to the End, by Dr. BJ Miller and Shoshana Berger, calmly, warmly, and matter-of-factly lays out the plain truth about one of life’s two great inevitabilities.

In the spirit of full disclosure, as the hacks say, I know Shoshana Berger personally. She’s one of the smartest and most emotionally generous people I’ve ever met, and I trust her advice about life and death. If she chose Miller as her co-author, I’ll trust him as well. Miller is a palliative care specialist who survived a near-death experience as a young man, and Berger recently went through the trauma of caring for, and burying, her beloved father. I could have used their book myself back in 2017, when my mother passed away suddenly, and in 2018, when my dad died after a protracted and difficult illness.

A Beginner’s Guide to the End, subtitled Practical Advice for Living Life and Facing Death, covers everything you need in simple, clear prose, in mercifully big type, and with cute illustrations. There’s not an ounce of humor in its pages, but there are tons of ounces of gentle kindness. It’s comprehensive, detailed, and practical. I wish I’d had access to the chapters on how to grieve and how to throw a memorial when my mother died. With my father, I had time to prepare for the grief, but no one could prepare me for the endless encounters with the medical system and with the paperwork. Nothing was going to save my mother once the infection took hold, and nothing would persuade my father to pursue his end-of-life care more practically. But at least I, and my sisters, would have better known what was coming.

Stare Into The Void

You can read A Beginner’s Guide to the End and think, well, this is what I have to face when my parents die, or maybe other old people I know. But I’m in the clear on that. My parents are gone. Though I’m in good health and haven’t received anything even close to a check-out notice, it will most likely happen in the next 30 years. This book prepares you to be both the griever and the grieved.

Miller and Berger give you advice on how to talk to your loved ones about a terminal illness and how to plan your own funeral or memorial service. Most practically and importantly, they talk about how to organize your affairs so the courts don’t end up sucking away your hard-earned capital. You want your life’s work to benefit loved ones and charity, not the legal system.

I read those chapters of A Beginner’s Guide to the End. They gave me a huge headache. Really? I have to make a death file? But really, it’s just another errand to run, another chore in a life full of them. And it’ll be a huge favor to your kids when they find your death file and know exactly what to do.

In the last two years, I’ve looked death in the face. It brought me mental agony, moderate expense, and lots of forms to sign. But it also brought me emotional clarity, friendship, love, and, in a surprising development, sobriety. Miller and Berger’s book will hopefully cushion the blow for more members of my freaked-out generation.

However, it won’t tell you what to do when people who you barely know blubber on social media about celebrity deaths. Maybe that’s because the chapter would just be two words. Block them.

Well, you're dead now, so shut up!


(Simon & Schuster, July 16, 2019)

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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