Life Lessons from Obituaries. When I was in my early 20s and working as a communications assistant at a veterans’ hospital, I began reading obituaries as a hobby. I was mesmerized by the lives and experiences of our patients, and when they passed away, I was struck by how deeply I felt the loss of each of these unique individuals. I looked up their obituaries to find out more information on the memorial service that was held in their honor. I’d find myself getting caught in their life narrative, penning additional information in the margins as I felt delighted when their spirit was captured on paper. A practice that has now been going on for close to thirty years was started in this manner.
During the early phases of the pandemic, I couldn’t help but make the observation that the amount of space in The Globe and Mail allocated to obituaries about doubled. It wasn’t only the fact that more individuals were passing away, but that was also the case. However, the length of each component increased as well. These notices had become both an obituary and a eulogy at a time when very few people were able to get together in person to celebrate a life that had been well-lived.
Despite this, a lot of people don’t put their loved ones’ passing into an obituary when they die. Some people put off the difficult chore for such a long time that it is eventually abandoned because there is no impending deadline for a memorial ceremony and there is no requirement to discuss the specifics of the service. Disclaimers about the paralyzing sadness that prevents them from even picking up a pen are peppered throughout the emails that bereaved family members send to me while they are in mourning for a loved one. Or, the required conversations that are too awkward to have — with blended families, remarriage, or loved ones who have drifted away from the family – make an already challenging assignment even more challenging. This can make an already tough task even more difficult.
My reply is usually the same: “It’s never too late to write the obituary,” even if the question is asked multiple times. People who are looking for alternatives to writing an obituary in the days after a death may want to consider placing an obituary on the one-year anniversary of the passing of their loved one, on the next birthday that their loved one was to celebrate, on a wedding anniversary, or in the month that their loved one’s preferred flower bloomed. These are some of the suggestions that I have. There is never an inappropriate moment.
For the recent book I wrote on the life lessons I’ve gained from reading obituaries for the past three decades, I got in touch with more than one hundred people to ask for permission to excerpt a notice they had written. This excerpt would be included in the book. The significance of the act of writing the tribute as part of the bereavement process was a theme that emerged repeatedly from the individuals who contributed to the obituary.
On the occasion of one year since her father’s passing, Tanya Miniely wrote an obituary in his honor and published it. Her family was able to commit more time to remembering him as a father and grandfather before the years that they spent providing care for him by going back over his life narrative before he entered the terminal stages of dementia.