How to Prepare for Your Mom’s Death (Even if She Isn’t Dying)

L.A. illustrator Hallie Bateman and her mother have created a funny, beautiful guidebook

On the 450th day after she passes away, journalist Suzy Hopkins has instructed her daughter, L.A.-based artist Hallie Bateman, to look in the mirror and try to see herself the way the elder woman did. “At times you will forget that you are amazing, and I hate that I’m not there to remind you,” she writes. “Because someday you will be old, and you will look back at pictures of yourself and you will see…’I was beautiful.'”

From day one to day 20,000, Hopkins’s advice to her daughter is laid out in What to Do When I’m Gone: A Mother’s Wisdom to Her Daughter, a new book with words by Hopkins and illustrations by Bateman. It’s a funny, pragmatic graphic guidebook that’s simultaneously deeply personal and super universal in that it chisels to the core of how complicated and wonderful mother-daughter relationships are. Maybe your image-conscious mom would never advise that you stop shaving your legs 320 days after her death—but she’d probably be OK with it if, in her honor, you eventually quit doing something you’ve always hated doing.

Hallie Bateman

“It was always a project I wanted for me,” Batemans says of the book. “Like, what if [she gets] hit by a bus and I don’t have this?!” [Once we started writing], we kind of said this feels like this might be something other people could use too.”

For the record, Bateman’s mother is not ill, terminally or otherwise. She’s a magazine editor in rural Northern California, which is where Bateman grew up as part of a a tight-knit family that talked about everything, including death. “Since both my parents are journalists,” Bateman says, “honesty and grammar were a big deal in our house.” But that didn’t stop her from waking up in a panic one night when she was in her early 20s, plagued by a “gut feeling of terror”: one day, even if that day is a long ways away, her mom is certainly going to die. 

Bateman says she spent five years bugging her mom to put down on paper the advice she’ll need once her mom passes away. It took a trip to a cabin in Maine—and two subsequent trips, one to Portland and one to Big Sur—to get both women to sit down and focus on the task at hand. “The week we were in Maine, the first night we sat on this screened-in porch. I had my laptop out and we just started: ‘It’s the first day you died—what do I do?,” Bateman recalls. “I would write down everything she said, and it kind of grew and grew.”

Courtesy Hallie Bateman and Bloomsbury Publishing

While a lot of the advice Hopkins and Bateman have included in their book does focus on coping in the wake of a monumental loss—on Day 18, feel free to throw something fragile—much of it is useful wisdom for the rest of everyday life. For instance, Day 8,000’s instruction is to “redefine happiness”:

“I used to think happiness was something I would get to at some point, that one day everything would fall into place and stay there,” Hopkins writes. “I see happiness as contentment with what you’re doing right now. That may be nothing at all, or something ambitious, or something in between. It’s a sense of not wanting to be anywhere else.”

What to Do When I’m Gone is Bateman’s second book (her creative journal, Brave New Work, was published by MoMA in 2017). She says what’s excited her most about the project is bringing her mom to a bigger audience.

“People in our community love her, but that doesn’t go beyond the bounds of our community,” Bateman says. “Because I left, I write and draw for a wider audience, and I wanted to share my mom with the world. My favorite moment of everything was calling her and telling her we sold the book. It was just so fun to get to tell her that.”

Bateman and Hopkins discuss What to Do When I’m Gone on Sun., May 6, 5 p.m., at Skylight Books, 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz.

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