In my work with hospice, I have done just about everything a volunteer is allowed to do. I stay with patients while their caregivers run errands or catch up on some sleep. I make phone calls to the newly bereaved, and I help facilitate a grief support group. I sit with the dying if they don’t have family with them at the end, and a couple of times, I’ve been present with patients as they passed on. After nearly two decades, I thought I’d done it all.
A few weeks ago, one of our bereavement counselors called. A patient had died, the family situation was strained, and the widower needed help writing his wife’s obituary. Not just help, in fact — he needed someone to write it from start to finish.
Well. This would be new. Neither of my late parents had wanted an obituary, so I’d never written one. I was particularly challenged by the paradox of writing something so personal about someone I’d never met. But the husband couldn’t do it, and I do love to put words together. Whatever I came up with would be better than nothing, which is what he’d have otherwise.
Having no experience, I did what I always do when I want to learn something: I googled it. The internet has a vast array of free templates for obituary writing, so I could see what information to include and how to format it. Like any savvy plagiarist, I took a little from one and a little from another. The bereaved husband helped me fill in the blanks with names, dates, and locations, until we came up with a draft that was…well…boring.
I know obituaries are not great literature. They’re not supposed to be exciting. But as I read through the dry facts — dates, places, jobs, and the number of children she’d had — I was sure there had to be a better way to sum up an entire lifetime. Let’s face it, those bare details are rarely interesting because they’re a lot like everybody else’s. We’re born, go to school, have jobs, maybe get married, sometimes have kids, and then at the end, someone is left to write about it in a way that attempts to make us seem unique.
So I saved the most important questions for last. After we’d gotten the date of their marriage, the correct spellings of the children’s names, and where she went to college, I asked the husband two more things about his wife.
What did she care about?
What will people remember her for?
The answers he gave changed the entire tone of the obituary. When we added those details, his wife’s final tribute illustrated her humanity and made the reader understand just what had been lost with her passing. It wasn’t literature, but for what it was, it was pretty good. He was pleased, and that assignment was done.
Except that, as often happens in hospice, it has left me thinking. Those questions have dogged me, perhaps because the answers illuminate what gives meaning to an otherwise average life.
What do I care about?
What will people remember me for?
The bereaved husband thought these questions meant the same thing, but they don’t. You can care deeply about something that no one else knows about, or be remembered for something completely different than the values you hold dear. My father, for instance, probably loved me to the limits of his ability. Unfortunately, that is not what I most remember about him.
This makes me wonder how I’m doing at getting the answer to the first question aligned with the second. If I care about something (or someone), does it show? Will anybody remember me for that? I’m not sure. Still, it’s something to work on, if only out of consideration for that person who someday will be writing the last word about me.