This book is dedicated to my mom, who probably won’t get this much ink when she dies.

Mention of specific companies, organizations, or authorities in this book does not imply endorsement by the author or publisher, nor does mention of specific companies, organizations, or authorities imply that they endorse this book, its author, or the publisher.

Internet addresses and telephone numbers given in this book were accurate at the time it went to press.

© 2017 by Laurie Kilmartin

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any other information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher.

Book design by Yeon Kim Cover and interior illustrations by Neil Swaab

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file with the publisher.

ISBN 978–1–63565–000–6
ISBN 978–1–63565–001–3 e-book

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Planning Your Own Death: Should You Sneak Out the Back Door Like Bowie?

Are You an Old Man with Daughters? Please Shred Your Porn

Are You Old and About to Die? A Comprehensive List of Things You Should Do First

If Cancer Was an STD, There Would Be a Cure by Now


Hospice: A Medical Term That Means “Here, You Do It”


Home Hospice: Die Surrounded by Stuff You Meant to Take to Goodwill

When Oncologists Say, “Not the Results We Were Hoping For,” They Mean “Bye-Bye”

If You’ve Given Birth, You Can Give Death

Help I Just Saw My Father’s Penis/Mother’s Vagina

The Most Awkward Goodbye: Hospice Phone Call on Speaker

Who Are You, Bereft Stranger?

Morphine, Unregulated and in Your Refrigerator

Dying People Get Obsessed with Some Weird Shit


Never Leave Your Dying Loved One’s Side Unless of Course It Is to Have Sex

Dying People Can Hear Every Word You Say

The Real Obit: He Died at Home, Surrounded by People Who Were on Their iPhones


Don’t Call the Mortuary Just Yet: The Case for Hanging Out with the Body Overnight

Your Parent Died before You Got to the Hospital, AKA One Final Attempt to Make You Feel Guilty

Your Long Dark Night of Old Testament-Style Lamentations

Bad News: Grief Is Not a Calorie Burner

The First Time You Tell a Telemarketer, “She Can’t Come to the Phone right Now Because She Is Dead.”

Morternity Leave: You Deserve at Least Six Weeks Off After You Give Death


Cremation: Hire a Professional or DIY?

You Live in My Mom’s Childhood Home, Mind If I Spread Her Ashes on Your Lawn?

For Lapsed Catholics Only: Yes, You Will Step Foot in That Church Again

Our Dad Was a Vet: Can We Ever Unfold This Flag?


The Main Reason Your Kid Is Crying Is He’s Excited to Get Grandpa’s iPad

When Famous People Die the Day Your Loved One Died (AKA No I’m Not Crying Because of Prince)

“I’m Sorry for Your Loss”: The Aloha of Condolences

“Uh, My Mom Died When I Was 7”: Things You Want to Say but Shouldn’t to a Middle-Aged Friend Who Just Lost Her 79-Year-Old Mother

People Who Say, “Welcome to the Dead Dad Club”

The Only People Who Get Truly Upset When an 83-Year-Old Dies Are 82-Year-Olds


Reverse Konmari: When You Can’t Throw Away Your Dead Parent’s Crap

The Cemetery: Who Will Ignore Your Mother’s Grave When You’re Gone?

Selling the House: When Zillow Describes the Corner Where Your Mom Died as a Breakfast Nook

Open Letter to the New Owners of My Childhood Home

Sex with an Ex Because He Knew Your Dad (AKA Grief Bangs)

And Now, Your Future is Full of People Who Will Never Meet Your Mom

Tech Death: Rebuilding Your Dead Parent from the Pixel Up, with Videos, Photos, and Audio Recordings

Dead People Suck: Why Won’t They Tell Us Definitively if There is an Afterlife?


WTF—My Dad Is Dead and [fill in the blank, I like Dick Cheney] Is Still Alive?

Verb Tense: Changing “Is” to “Was”

Atheists: Prepare to Have Your Unfaith Tested

Facebook Keeps Putting Other People’s Dead Parents in My Feed

Dear Silicon Valley, Could One of You Fucking Nerds Develop a Cure for Cancer Instead of Another Stupid App?

When the Wrong Parent Dies First


Unsubscribing Your Dead Parent from Tea Party E-mails

All Those Sex Acts You Would Never Try While Your Parents Were Still Alive? Time to Party


Mortality Watch: Guess Who’s Next? (Hint: You)

Undo Years of Bad Parenting with the Gift of the Unexpected Check

The Obituary: A Bad Time for Writer’s Block

Seize Your Days


Thanks to my mom JoAnn, for surviving widowhood and taking such great care of her grandson. To my sister Eileen, for helping keep Dad alive that extra night. To my son, who shall go nameless so he can deny being related to me. Nameless makes me laugh every day. To Eileen’s husband Sean, who took the kids to the park over and over again so we could be with Dad.

To my friend Cheryl Holliday for making Dad’s funeral bearable, and to Eileen’s friend Ann Barry-Farrow for making it gorgeous. To Dwayne Johnson-Cochran for meeting my Dad in his last days.

To my bosses Conan O’Brien and Mike Sweeney, who let me take as much time off as I needed. To comedian Brian Kiley, who read an early draft of this book and gave me great notes.

To everyone at Rodale: Jennifer Levesque, Anna Cooperberg, Yeon Kim, Gail Gonzales, Leah Miller, Susan Turner, and Brianne Sperber for putting up with all of my tweaks. Ladies, I’m not done yet.

To Cris Italia, Patrick Milligan and the gang at The Stand NYC, for letting me read the audio version of this book at the club.

Mostly, to my Dad. I can’t wait to see you again, I have so much to tell you. Love Laurie


Much of the advice in Dead People Suck is terrible and some of it is probably illegal. My sincere hope is that it helps you, the griever, pass time in the subway or on the toilet. The fact that our loved ones die at all is an outrage that should be addressed by Congress or the Justice League. I am desperate to see my dad again, so I’m counting on there being a robust, post-death afterlife. If there’s not, I will be livid. And then I will be dead.

All jokes aside, I wish you didn’t need to read this book and I am sorry for your loss.

Laurie Kilmartin



I knew it was coming. With every phone call, every visit home, my dad seemed older. Then one day, he was elderly. Hard of hearing, slow, shaky. All those things that happen to old people when they’re about to d—

Stop. Are you about to write “die”?


No! Not my dad.

Whose then?

But I still need him.

You’ve had him for 47 years. That’s not bad.

But I’m not successful yet, I’m not married. I’m a renter. He can’t die while I’m still a renter!

I’m sorry. It’s time.

But he’s only 82!

Is that person in italics you? Because it was me, in July 2013, when my 82-year-old father was diagnosed with end-stage lung cancer. And it was still me in February 2014, when he went into hospice.

Now, I’ve been aware of Death for a long time. I cried when Death took Bambi’s mom and cheered when it took Jaws. I was 12 when Death took one grandparent and grown when it came for another. And yet, part of me believed that my dad would always be alive. Okay, not part. All. All of me believed my father was death-proof. That he and I would keep chugging along, with him always being 35 years older than me. Me 60, Dad 95. Me 70, Dad 105. Me 80, Dad, the oldest man in the world. It really seemed like a viable option. Then, that thing that happens to everyone happened to me.

My dad died.

If we are lucky, our nuclear family expands for a few decades. Siblings get married, bringing in-laws and kids, siblings get remarried, bringing new in-laws and step-kids. The holidays turn into huge affairs. Family photos are standing room only, with our parents sitting proudly in the center. Then, one day the contraction begins. Nature or God brings out the ax and starts chopping off the oldest branches of our family tree.

That’s the best-case scenario, everyone dying in the reverse order they were born.

This book is not about a young death or a tragic death, those waters are too deep. This book is about old people dying, as expected, of old-people causes. Specifically, it’s about cancer, hospice, funerals, grief, well-meaning friends, and how shocking it is to be parentless, for the first time, at 48.

The book answers questions like:

Q: Do my friends really care that my 88 year old mother died?

A: Yes, for 20 minutes. Then they think, ”Well, she had a nice, long life,“ and go about their day, hoping you don’t mention it again.

Q: Are there any rules when it comes to administering morphine?

A: The sick person gets the most, the family gets the rest.

Q: Can I shame my dying loved one into living longer?

A: Absolutely. On the 8th of Dad’s 10 days in hospice, I introduced my (then) boyfriend, who is African-American, to Dad. After the boyfriend left, I said, ”Dad, if you die today, people will think you are racist.’’ Dad laughed and lived two more days, and I credit my ex for that.

Q: How can I make sure my mom’s ashes don’t fall off the mantel?

A: You can’t. Between earthquakes, fracking, and a child’s temper tantrum, no mantel can be trusted. That’s why the safest place to store ashes is directly in a vacuum cleaner. They’re going to end up there anyway, so buy a nice one. Didn’t your mom always want a Dyson?

Q: Is it ok to be attracted to the soldier who plays Taps at your dad’s funeral?

A: Yes. while working through grief, you can count on your genitals to lead the way.

Q: Speaking of genitals, after a lifetime of avoiding them, is hospice the time where I will accidentally see my father’s?

A: Probably. Dying is messy and often involves diapers.

Q: When my dad’s parents died, he wasn’t as upset about losing them as I am about losing him. Why?

A: When your parent was a child, corporal punishment was legal and popular. In 1934-35, when my dad was four years old, my grandmother introduced him to a retired Army general. For reasons Dad was never able to explain, he looked the general dead in the eye and said ”damn.’’ Then he ran for his life. grandma tore off after him. When she caught him, she dragged him to the bathroom and washed his mouth out with soap. Growing up, I heard about that one instance more than I ever heard about his time in combat during the Korean War. So I’m not surprised Dad went back to work the day after grandma died. When I get a drop of shampoo in my mouth in the shower, I’m nauseous for hours. If my dad had ever done that to me, this book would be called Good Riddance.

Q: While watching TV, my dying loved one said, “I like this show,” then slipped into unconsciousness. Can I rouse him, so his last words are more eloquent?

A: Please don’t, disappointment awaits. The next thing out of his mouth could be, ”Who are you?’’ Quotable last words are rare. Dying people have enough on their plate, we shouldn’t pressure them to be profound. Besides, ”I like this show’’ may have been a comment on his life, not Judge Joe Brown.

Q: Do I correct someone who posts, “Condolences on loosing your father?”

A: No. Reply, ”Thank yoou’’ and be grateful they didn’t write ”you’re father.’’


Our family’s story isn’t remarkable. Ron and JoAnn Kilmartin married in 1957, and they had two daughters. My name is Laurie. I’m a staff writer on CONAN and a standup comedian. My sister Eileen is a psychiatrist (not to be confused with My Sister Eileen, a 1955 musical starring Jack Lemmon and Janet Leigh).

Dad was hospitalized in July 2013. One of his arms was double its normal size. A soon-to-be discovered tumor was causing a blockage. Mom called me and said, “Your father refuses to go to the hospital until he walks the damn dog.” She followed him in the car as he walked Pepsi, shouting, “Ron, get in the car.” And I yelled the same thing into my phone, from a hotel room in Austin, Texas, where I was working at a comedy club.

When I saw Dad in the hospital two days later, he was in good spirits, defending his dog walk. He responded to his cancer diagnosis with a grim, “Okay.” I went online and found five cases of people who lived for years with end-stage lung cancer and assumed Dad would be number six. The chemo quickly reduced the tumors, and within a week, he was allowed to return home. Dad had more chemo, and then radiation, to prevent the tumors from metastasizing to his brain. (“Don’t let all this cancer go to your head, Dad,” I said.)

He died nine months after being diagnosed with lung cancer. His tumors grew like fetuses we weren’t able to abort. We tracked them on X-rays and watched them get bigger and more plentiful. Hey, look Dad, it’s triplets! But instead of welcoming a new life, we were saying good-bye to an old one.

While nonsmokers get lung cancer too, my dad smoked three or four packs a day for 30 years, back when doctors prescribed cigarettes for the flu. He quit when he was forty-five, after a bout with emphysema. He turned his life around. He became a jogger. He lifted weights and hiked with all his dogs in hilly parks, every single day. And all that time, some shitty little cell was sitting in his lung, waiting for the right moment to turn malignant and multiply.

I’m grateful that cancer didn’t strike earlier, but it could’ve waited another 10 years too.

My parents still lived in the San Francisco East Bay, where Eileen and I grew up. We both flew home frequently, but Dad’s primary caretaker was Mom. He wasn’t allowed to eat solid food anymore, so she prepared his nutritional packets, and fed him through a tube in his stomach. (He was at risk of choking on solid food. Aside from a small bite of salmon during hospice, this was how he consumed calories for the rest of his life.)

In mid-February, Mom and Dad came to Los Angeles. I took them and my 7-year-old son on a weekend visit to Joshua Tree National Park. Before they flew down, I spoke to his doctor. Dad’s tumors were getting bigger and he needed a new round of chemo. “Should we cancel this trip so he can get his treatment now?” I asked. The doctor said, “No, you should take the trip.”

That was the doctor’s way of telling me that Dad’s disease was probably no longer treatable. His cancer was obviously following a trajectory the doctor had seen before. At Joshua Tree, Dad stayed in the car, watching his grandson climb rocks from afar. Dad and Mom returned home on Monday. The final chemo was administered on Tuesday. We were told it would work immediately or not at all.

It worked not at all.

Dad was admitted to home hospice on Thursday, February 20. Eileen and I both flew back on Friday morning. Dad liked charts and graphs, so we stuck a white-board calendar on the wall. We ordered Dad to drag this hospice thing out as long as possible and gave him his first goal: Live until the end of February. Every day that began with Dad breathing was marked with a red X. One of us would draw the X dramatically and say, “You did it!” (It was our version of Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break the Chain.”) He died on Sunday, March 2, ensuring that Mom got both her and Dad’s March Social Security checks.

Ron Kilmartin was diligent like that.


Planning Your Own Death: Should You Sneak Out the Back Door Like Bowie?

When you find yourself in the dying stage of your life, and everything feels out of your control, remember there are two decisions you still get to make: Who do you tell and when do you tell them?

Let’s examine your options, none of which are good.


You may be thinking, “Let’s keep it small.” You are a modest person. You don’t want to make a big to-do, as your generation says. Well, that is sweet. And so, so naive. Allow me to describe the world you are about to leave, the one cooked up by these awful Generation X and Millennial descendants of yours.

There is no such thing as private, personal, or keeping it in the family. Grief is now a shared commodity. You might tell just your immediate family, but one of your shithead relatives will tell everyone. Because that is how we suffer now. Publicly, with hashtags. You may be departing at just the right time.