Final Wishes for Mad Men

{Spoiler alert! If you’re not up to date on Mad Men, you don’t want to read this yet!}

Cancer sucks. Chemotherapy sucks. Radiation sucks. There seems to be pretty universal agreement about these matters. But the choices about whether, when, and how to pursue or forgo treatments are far more complicated. What type(s) of cancer? Where and how far spread? What are the chances of getting the cancer into remission? What is the life expectancy for that type of cancer? What does the quality of that life that’s left look like? As Betty Draper put it in the series penultimate episode poignantly on this Mothers’ Day, “and what would that year be like?”


What would you miss? What could you not bear to risk missing under any circumstances? What access to medical care do you have? What financial resources do you have? What social support resources do you have? Given the same diagnosis, would you choose the same path as Betty Draper? Does your family know what you would really want? How do they know? And what if they don’t agree with you or with one another?

Betty Draper didn’t win any awards for Mother of the Year. And in particular, her relationship with her daughter, her oldest child, is far from enviable. At best Betty was coldly indifferent and apparently annoyed by the practical daily burdens of parenting (despite having more paid help than most of us can imagine having). At worst she was cruel. In this second to last episode of the Mad Men series, it physically hurt to watch Betty glare and walk right past a stunned Sally who had come home to try to help after learning of her mother’s diagnosis.

After that brush, Sally reacts to her mother’s assertions that she will not pursue treatment by suggesting the reason is because Betty “love[s] the tragedy.” Clearly Sally’s sympathies have been dulled by a lifetime of other interactions with her mother. In that moment it is clear that Sally accepts Betty’s decision as final. Betty’s husband, Henry, however, is a politician who has worked hard to attain power and does not believe she should concede the fight so easily, challenging her, “What do you think would happen if Nelson Rockefeller got this?” to which Betty quickly replies, “He would die!” Alas, money and power can only buy so much.


In fact, it is Betty who shows true agency and command here. A few hours later Betty asserts her strength and independence to Sally explaining that knowing when to quit is not the same thing as being a quitter. Reminding Sally of having watched her own mother die, Betty promises not to force Sally to endure the same. Then Betty hands Sally an envelope saying, “These are instructions. Open it the minute you know I’m gone. [ ] Listen to me. Things happen very quickly when people die.”

Betty isn’t sticking her head in the sand refusing to hear or accept the devastating news. Instead, she is facing it with her signature dispassionate composure. Rather than spending her final days “as the battlefield for a futile war,” as John Teti for the AV Club so aptly put it, Betty chooses to follow her own path and do what she had always wanted to do instead. Before watching Betty head back to her college psychology class, we the viewer hear her final wishes voiced over in her detached monotone delivery:

“[ ] you must immediately tell the hospital and the funeral director that I’m to be interred intact in the family plot in West Laurel. Uncle William has the details from Grandpa Gene’s burial. I’ve also enclosed a portrait from the 1968 Republican Winter Gala. The blue chiffon I wore is my very favorite. I hung it in a gold garment bag in the hall closet beside the mink. Please bring them the lipstick from my handbag and remind them how I like to wear my hair. Will you show them the picture? [ ] I love you, Mom.”

Sally Draper reading Betty Draper's final wishes

Why did Betty choose to place that burden on her young daughter rather than on her powerful politician husband who has been the most stable force in her life in a long time? Betty explained to Sally, “Henry’s not going to be able to handle things.” And perhaps that letter helped Sally understand and begin to develop newfound compassion for her mother.

By memorializing your final wishes such as details surrounding your preference for burial or cremation, you can help ensure your surviving loved ones aren’t left wondering or debating it in your absence. And by writing a heartfelt letter to your loved ones, you can help explain why you made the choices you did, how you see yourself and your loved ones, and what you want them to remember about you. Because the courage it takes to sit down and actually write a letter like that is uncommon, I have another method I use to help my clients complete their estate plans with that most essential piece, memorializing who they are, what is important to them, and why they spent the time, energy, and money on a Will or Trust and estate plan at all. Because that is almost never something we do for ourselves; we do it for the people we love the most.

About Danielle G. Van Ess

Danielle G. Van Ess is a Massachusetts (born and raised), experienced estate planning and small business attorney who helps her clients protect and preserve what matters most to them. To learn more, please visit: or call: 781-740-0848