Be Extra Kind to Your Mom, Because You Only Get One, Warts and All

My mother, Lynn Margulis, and me. She died very unexpectedly of a brain hemorrhage on November 22, 2011

I’m not sure but I think I was sitting at the kitchen table with my 12-year-old daughter, who was getting ready for her 7th grade play, when the call came.

Urgent. Hospital. Brain actively bleeding. Trying to stabilize her. Intensive care.

My mother had collapsed while working at the computer in her home office. She was taken to the emergency room but the local hospital was not equipped to handle what happened to her. By the time I talked to a doctor, they were doing the paperwork to transfer her to a hospital with a neurological ICU.

I woke my 2-year-old at 4 a.m. the next morning so we could catch a 5:30 flight. I was by my mom’s side by 7 p.m., her important documents — the health proxy, power-of-attorney, and living will — in hand.

“I looked at the scans, Jenny,” her doctor of twenty years–more a friend than a physician–told me on the phone that day. “‘Massive’ would not be too big a word for the bleed.”

Five days after the stroke my mother died. At her home. My 12-year-old held her right hand, my 10-year-old held her left. Those were the worst five days of my life but at least I know she died surrounded by more love than the room could contain.

Ever since that phone call I’ve been living underwater.

It wasn’t until yesterday that I was able to start up the computer. There’s a package my mother sent me that I cannot open. The day she collapsed she bought tickets to come visit us.

It feels like someone has stabbed me with 100 daggers, in my stomach, in my back, in my neck, but most of all in my heart.

Mom, I wish I could have gotten there sooner. I miss you so much. I’m not ready for you to be gone.

This holiday season be extra kind to your mom, tell her you love her, do something special for her.

You only get one, no matter how imperfect she is.

And when she dies, you can’t ever get her back.

Lynn Margulis, evolutionary theorist, dies at 73, Obituary of my mother in the New York Times

Lynn Margulis, 73, transformed view of evolution, Obituary of my mother in the Boston Globe

An exhaustive compilation with links to all the obituaries in English, Spanish, Catalan, and other languages about my mom by her friend and colleague Mercè Piqueras

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Categories: Lynn Margulis.


  1. Sue

    I’m taking your advice to heart! I will tell my mom I love her, be extra kind, and do something nice for her.

    I’m so sad your mother is gone. My thoughts and love are with you and your family.

  2. V.

    Every time I hear (or read) something negative a person says about his or her mother, I want to say, “Some day she’ll be gone. Be nice.” Your words help me know how true this is. So sorry for your loss.

  3. Oona Snoeyenbos-West

    Wonderful writing Jenny…made me cry…your words are so true. I lost my Mum to Breast cancer 10 years ago now and was unfortunate not to be there the day she died..It is the biggest regret of my life that I could not be there to hold her hand. I am so glad that you had that oppourtunity with Lynn. I wish I could say it gets easier with time..but I still miss her everyday.

  4. Sean Werle

    Well said, made me cry too. Can’t follow your advice because the same thing happened to us two weeks before Lynn, but they are wise words. I feel lucky because I did get to spend some rare quality time with both my Mom and yours this Fall. I miss them both a lot. Don’t live underwater too long, Lynn wouldn’t want you to 🙂

  5. Sarah Branson

    Thinking of you and you family this holiday. Your gift to your mom of your and her family midwifing her through death to whatever lies beyond was beautiful. Here’s to memories and the love that you all shared. That will never disappear.

  6. Jim Madril

    My condolences on your loss. I know the pain you’re going through, having lost my mother just before I could visit her. While the pain will never go away completely, I still smile at the memories and that always cheers me up.

  7. Oh Jennifer,
    Really sorry to hear about your loss. I hold the same emptiness and longing for my mother in my heart as well. The pain receeds and you find them with you always. Love to you. You are never alone.

  8. CM

    I knew your mother through professional connections, and admired her greatly. To read your personal account here is deeply moving; I had to say good-bye to my mother earlier this year. This will be a somber holiday, but I trust there will be a few smiles as well. Your mother’s bright spirit shines through in the photo, and I can see that our mothers were kindred souls. Peace to you.

  9. Lynn Barton

    I so relate to what you wrote…my mom died 12 years ago, in 5 short days, and if anything I miss her more now than I did then. I too received mail from her after she died…no matter how difficult moms can be (and mine certainly was at times), we never stop needing them. What a comfort you and your children were able to be there with her. She was a remarkable woman.

  10. Jennifer, I am so sorry for your loss. I am glad you got to your mom in time and that she was surrounded by loving family when she passed. That is more than many people get to have. I can’t imagine how hard this is for you. Of course you’re going to find it hard to function. Be kind to yourself and take the time you need. I’m sending you lots of loving thoughts at this difficult time.
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  11. K. Kay

    I send you my very deepest condolences! Chief Seattle says, “There is no death, only a change of worlds.” I wish you deep peace this season. Some mothers really ought not to take on the job; they’re better suited to other things, and yet they do their best with the resources they have. Maybe you could consider honoring your mother with an annual work day or charitable contribution to an organization that helps children who don’t have mothers. I’ve found that giving back helps a little, and there are so many who need. . .. . . .love.

  12. Myra lou

    Our family is thinking of you. I can’t imagine the loss you feel. You are so right, we only have our one very own mothers. So sorry for your loss.

  13. Natalie

    I’m very sorry to hear of your loss, Jennifer. I will be sure to show my mother the love and appreciation she deserves in honor of your mother. I hope you’re able to find joy with your family during this holiday season.

  14. Lorraine

    Jennifer, thanks for sharing this beautiful photo of you and your mom. I’m reading your post and crying – and thinking of you and your family. I’m so sorry for your loss. But I’m glad you were there with her at the end and the room was filled with so much love. Hugs and lots of love to you…

  15. Lorraine

    I also wanted to add – your mom loved you, your brothers and her grandkids, so, so much. She never let an opportunity pass to talk about the great things you were doing and how proud she was. She was always taking out that wallet full of family photos!

  16. K. Kay

    Could you please take me off the list to receive these emails? I am not sure how I got on it. Thank you. The directive “Be Extra Nice to Your Mom” is inappropriate for some children (and adult children) of violent, abusive, manipulative, psychotic, inappropriate, or simply absent parents. Your grief is a blessing; it shows you had something to lose. Not everyone does. I admire your fortitude and your heart.

  17. I don’t know if this will help or hurt Jennifer, but I want to testify to you that you will see your Mother again, your relationship with her will last through eternity, and the love and joy you experienced during this mortal experience on earth is just a taste of the joy that you will enjoy during the long and endless forever to come.

    Thanks for all you do to help families. This is sacred work and I so appreciate your courage and willingness to “stick your neck out” year after year. I like to think the discomfort we all feel will smooth the way for our daughters when they give birth and Mother our grandchildren.

    All my love,

  18. Nicole

    I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your beautiful, meaningful thoughts, especially in your time of grief.

  19. John Skelly


    Your mom passed with all the love in her world around her, as did my dad. I was there for days as the end drew near, with family and friends there at home in Eugene. I didn’t sleep for days and at times I was just falling apart. Such a tough experience, with such finality. That was 18 months ago, and I continue to realize new things about myself, mom, family and future. I’ll never stop missing my dad, as you will with your mom, I’m sure. Your pride in her will continue to grow and evolve too. She did some awesome things with the time in her life, and will continue to educate, inspire and illuminate for all who knew her in life. I know how you must be feeling right now, and of little solace when I suggest that it gets better and lighter with time. Our heartfelt wishes to you and your family, Jen.

    • John, I’m glad you got to be with your father during his last days. I keep hearing stories about people who miss that — because they live too far away, or because the death is just so sudden. That my mom stayed alive for several days after her stroke was a gift to me, to my children, and to our whole family. I do take solace in being able to have shown her our love and cared for her. But it’s also so hard that she never regained consciousness, that we didn’t really get a chance to say goodbye. I just don’t know how to believe she is gone. I wish there was some way to get her back. Then I think I need to work really hard and make her proud. But it’s hard, when the grief is so overwhelming.

  20. Karen Jeffery

    I’m so sorry for your loss. But I loved reading about your mom…and remembering mine. Grieve fully, and a day will come when you just smile at how lucky you were to have her as your mom.
    Aloha, kj

  21. Jennifer,

    Thank you for writing about your mom, and for sharing her obituary. One of my first thoughts (being a photographer, but also a daughter), was of your lovely photo of just the two of you! You see, my parents visited from Michigan the end of October, and my father died suddenly the end of November. I have all of these photos of my dad, but the last one I could find of just the two of us was taken when I was 13! Yes! Love your parents. They are indispensable. Big hugs! Michaela

    • Michaela, I’m so sorry to hear of the sudden loss of your father. I have read that, though any loss is very difficult, a sudden and unexpected one is sometimes harder to bear. I’m so glad we had photos taken with my mom, too. It means a lot to me, especially now, to have them to look at.

  22. Lucy

    I loved reading this article. As a teenager, I think that I can sometimes tend to see more of the negative things in my mom, failing to notice the positive, even when I know it’s there and always will be. This made me realize that I should probably take more time to think, “Wow, you know, she really does a lot for me and she deserves to know it.”

    Sorry for your loss, Jennifer.

  23. Ellen

    I am so sorry for your loss. I know your pain as my own mom passed just yesterday of the same thing. I was on my way up to see her when I got the call. She lasted less than 24 hours. I can’t believe she is gone…and i don’t know how to even begin to cope. she taught me everything, except how to live without her

    • Ellen, I’m so sorry. I wish I could say something to lessen the pain but I can only say that I know what you are going through, and that it’s very hard. Not just days afterwards but weeks afterwards and months afterwards. I can’t stop thinking about my mom’s last days. And that is NOT how I want to remember her. I just can’t get the images out of my mind. More experienced grievers say that the pain does start to lessen, slowly, and with time. I guess the lesson in that is we should try to be patient with ourselves. I will keep you in my thoughts. Love, Jennifer.

  24. Michaela Begg


    You are in my thoughts! Take care of yourself. No words can capture feelings adequately, just remember that you are not alone in this world!


  25. Ellen

    Thank You Jennifer, and i will keep you in my prayers as well. It has been three weeks now, and I am still so overwhelmed, that I can’t breath.
    Went to see my minister to plan the service yesterday and she made me feel worse. It was as if she thought I should be over it all by now.
    I was going to have her do the eulogy but I don’t want her doing anything now, and i will try somehow to do it. On top of losing mom I feel crazy with all that has been dumped on my..such as dealing with everything….the service will be April 20th when my brother can be here. He is older but isn’t any help…….I know I am whinning, but I just feel scared has my head is tight and stressed…I also have tons of photos. more in the laters years due to digital but I cherish each and every one…

  26. I know how you feel, Ellen. It’s very hard, and the grief goes on for a long time. You should be thinking in years, even decades, not weeks. I’m sorry your minister made you feel worse. Sometimes people want to “fix” your sadness, when what they really need to do is listen, sympathize, and give you a tissue and a hug. Hang in there. You aren’t whining, dear, just grieving…

    • Ellen

      Thank You Jennifer, I am also moving into a basic survival mode. My mom would want me to be OK. I am physically sick and stressed out. My head feel tigh, and I have tried just deep breathing. It is frightening….I lost my dad 31 yers ago, and it is now a tolerable thing. I miss him, but I can cope..I of course had mom then, and now I am so alone….friends are helpful, but they are not mom

  27. Ellen

    Jennifer, my mom also died of an unexpected brain hemorrhage. She was in Rehab but doing fine, and coming home. I was at the time of the call on my way up to see her at 6pm. I got there at the same time as the EMTS. She was unresponsive. We went to the local hospital, and they did the CAT scan. They told me it was massive, but I took her to a better hospital in the next state. It wa sthe same conclusion. I managed to get her back to rehab about 3:30AM…and i lost her the following day at 2:15pm, it wa so quick…:(

  28. Elsa

    You are so right!! I’m so rude to my mom and dad and I’m a teen. My parents had me at an older age so I’m still young. I’m so attached to my mom. She is so kind. Her life has been hard with my parents separating and I should be so kind to her especially.
    I am so sorry for your loss. I understand where you are coming from and I hop you feel better knowing she is in peace now watching down on you.

  29. Minah

    I lost my Mum last week to a Brain Haemorrhage. My father had died 8 weeks previous of brain cancer. Mum’s death was so unexpected and I wish I had her back to show her how much I love her. As her only daughter we often had quite a fiery relationship. Things had been difficult after Dad died so I stayed around to help her get back on her feet. She had been in and out of hospital with some confusion but never expected her to die.

  30. hans bergmann

    Your mother referred to Emily Dickinson as her neighbor. I just wanted you to know (I’m sure you do know) that Lynn Margulis was a great human being and scientist — as important to us all as Emily Dickinson. The two great women of Amherst.

    Hans Bergmann

  31. susan selfridge

    Ever so painstakingly the daggers will come out. It is a long process; but, healing will come. It will be less painful as time goes on. Life will never ever be the same without that most special person. Life will be different. And, life will be. I think of you every day in this first year. And, always.

  32. Tina Ottman

    I was searching for lectures by your mom for my biology class at a state college. I had the opportunity to meet her once at the NSTA Conference in Orlando. I’m 54 years old…and your mother inspired me to go back to school and pursue a career in science…the microbial realm at that. She represents the very best that science offers, a truly imaginative and creative thinker with genius behind every thought. She does not back down…she persistently goes about her work. I hold her at the same level as Mendel and Mendeleev…she could see what was there before we had the knowledge to know what to look for. She was woman in a man’s scientific world…and she was right! You had an amazing woman for your mother…and I am so sorry for your loss! I am sorry for all of us…we have lost a treasure!

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