If you want to remember loved ones — who they were and what they stood for — write their obituaries.
I learned this lesson 12 years ago when my father died.
While the tangles of Alzheimer’s disease slowly strangled his brain, my mother took a first stab at his obituary. Upon Dad’s death, however, Mom was grieving. She shoved what she had written into my hands, “You’re the writer, why don’t you finish this?”
My mother was actually a superb writer and her draft was crisp, funny and unique. It was written in first person as though Dad had penned it so that, for once, he would have the last word.
What a marvelous portrayal of our family’s dynamic — Dad hollered a lot when things didn’t follow his designs, but it was Mom’s design that mattered. She was the true captain of the family ship. Which made Dad’s obituary a perfect construct: It was Dad’s last words … according to Mom.
I looked through old photo albums depicting the breadth of my Dad’s life and, this had me remembering my father’s quirky personality traits and classic family stories rather than the final years and the slow deterioration of his mind.
I worked in new sentences and paragraphs that were consistent with my mother’s framework but revealed more about who my father was and what he believed. Then I sent my draft out to the rest of the family.
My mother was happy and my brother was too busy to criticize.
My sister, however, felt our father was being misrepresented. “This tells an entertaining story about his cheapskate antics and quirky personality but it misses so much.” She elaborated how he was cheap with himself but not with his family and buttressed this statement with many examples. She said he had exceptionally high moral fiber and explained how this contributed to his prickly nature.
We talked for an hour remembering stories, anecdotes and quotes that captured traits not mentioned in the obit. It was funny. And it was enlightening to hear my sister’s “take” on who my father was. In a few instances she gave me an entirely new perspective on my father’s behavior that I hadn’t considered.
I wasn’t sure how to handle this new content but I called my brother to capture his stories, anecdotes and memories. While we talked, I had the “Aha!” moment of how I would incorporate some of this new content into the obituary.
After the initial portion professing Dad was writing his obituary so he would finally get the last word, I segued to the kid’s addendum where I stated Dad never got the last word in our family and that tradition would not be changing now.
Then off I went discussing his many strong qualities that couldn’t be discussed in the initial construct without making Dad sound like a braggart.
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