How to Write an Obituary
Life happens. Death happens. I have lived through the experience of loss multiple times. In finding ways to cope, I have discovered what some have called a “gift” or a “talent” ~ I know how to write an obituary.
I don’t know if it’s a gift, but it IS one way to create some tangible legacy for this person who made a difference in (at least) my life in a meaningful, memorable way…
My daughter, Lauren Sherwood, died 14 Mondays ago. I have received hundreds of personal notes about her ‘lovely’ obituary. Truthfully, I thought it was going to be hell to write, and I put it off. I made up a lot of things I had to do that day; that week.
My job: to summarize 25 years of joys, sorrows, living life, retreating, finding herself, finding love, finding her talent for her career. To encapsulate her life in just a thousand words. And, it had to be “perfect”. I had ONE shot to make capture her spirit, her life. I had one shot to show the world she was wonderful, warts and all. Just one shot to share the stories of her life for posterity’s sake, with some weird need to prove that she mattered and made a difference in this world. ONE SHOT. “That’s a really shitty job,” I thought.
Yet in the process of writing what I thought needed to be the most-perfectly-written-piece-of-art-in-the-history-of-obituaries, I started smiling.
I smiled thinking about our camping adventures with our dogs as she grew up, and our late night chats in the last months of her life. I smiled while writing about the way she and her sister would fight to beat other bargain-hunters at garage sales and Good Will and shared their beautiful sisterly bond in so many ways.
The smile crossed my face as I recounted watching her grow in her career, fall in love and have my grand-daughter, and grow into the adult she’d craved to be. My smile grew as I added the picture she loved most – the one with her radiant smile and confident shoulders, the one showing off her tell-tale locks of love in all her pre-chemo glory; the one she chose as her ‘favorite of all time’ before she died. I honored her wish to use it…
Life wasn’t perfect, but we tried to cherish the journey, and I yearned to share this joy with other people who loved her, and with people who love and wanted to support our families in our grief. To recount love ~ with gratitude; this is how I found the strength to write my daughter’s obituary. What is YOUR source for writing YOUR loved one’s obituary?
In working to find meaning in life, and in death, I wondered just HOW we showcase ‘legacy’? …That we made a difference in one person’s life, or the world!? Why do we matter? Who will remember?
Therefore, my quest began for searching for obituaries and family or professional legacy stories about other loves I’ve lost – my grandparents, my patients, my friends, my ‘other mom’.
I started with my grandma, Betty “Okie Dokie” Legg. I found NOTHING. Searches through our local paper’s electronic archives, dedicated legacy and obituary sites, and web searches for every alias by which anybody would have ever know of her in 92 years yielded NOTHING! Nada. This woman, who helped raise me, who died in my home in my arms?
Not only gone, but gone without a loving memorial / obituary presence online that I KNOW my mom and uncle wrote and submitted. I remember where her obituary was located on the printed newspaper page; I remember the church directory photo of her that they chose. How can that just disappear?! (…NOT so helpful to come across this glaring absence of legacy left, when trying to evaluate how to help my daughter showcase that she mattered in this world, in my search for the meaning of life and death!! Argh ~ the timing!!)
Ultimately, the wonderful obituary coordinator who cared for me as we navigated the publishing path for my daughter’s obituary searched the paper archives of the News & Guide, and found my grandma’s obituary. No trace online, but the tangible evidence that someone cared enough about her life to write a synopsis to share with future generations. Evidence of her life had not completely disappeared!
My job offer from the mortuary to write obituaries
My ‘bonus mom’ died in 2010 after an almost five-year battle with cancer. Christi was what many would call my “step” mom for 34 years; the wife of my biological father who was divorced from my bio mom. As we aged and grew and connected and loved on each other, she became, lovingly, my ‘other’ mom; there was no “step” about it. I’m SO grateful to have had two strong, sassy, intelligent and caring moms in my life!!
When my other mom died, after being held tightly in her final stages of life, it was my ‘work’ to create her written legacy in the form of her final story, her obituary.
She told me what she wanted me to say to a degree ~ what she wanted me to tell my dad, her grandchildren, her friends, even her clients! She ALSO said she wanted it to be “fun”. FUN?! Are you kidding me?! You want me to write through tears so people think it’s “FUN”?!
Not only did the process become fun, you might read her obit and actually smile, too…
I had the fun opportunity to reach out to her extended family and lifelong friends. Fun stories of their fun experiences flooded my inbox. Through tears I ‘worked’ to capture her silly grammatical nuances that made Christi, Christi. I ‘worked’ to capture her passions of sharing creative vision and beauty with her clients. I ‘worked’ to share the stories of her fun years with her besties. And I finally looked back to see that the ‘work’ brought me more smiles than tears, too. It WAS a fun process to capture her final synopsis of her fun view of life.
The funeral home directly offered me job after reading her obituary: helping families capture real life as they grieve and learn how to write an obituary.
Christi’s specific request gave me strength to write about more than dates on a timeline, but a timeline of FUN experiences of her life. What is YOUR source for writing YOUR loved one’s obituary?
What is YOUR “source” for writing your loved one’s obituary?
You have a once in a lifetime opportunity to provide a written legacy for the loved one you have lost. From where will you draw your strength, stories, and inspiration?
How to write an obituary ~ Is this thought completely daunting? Freeing? Overwhelming, touching, burdensome, exciting or scary?
What would happen if you began with a few questions:
- Why was she significant to you, her community, or her profession? What types of activities drew out her confidence? Where did her passion for her children or community shine through?
Was he a loyal friend? How did he share his free time? What was he doing when he smiled the most? Why did children flock to sit on his lap to hear stories of a life well lived? What were people’s reactions when he walked into a room? Did they feel loved? Connected? Safe?
- As you write, can you identify the specific source from which YOU can draw strength and insight in order to create this special synopsis of his or her life? Can you visualize yourself in a special moment with your loved one, maybe looking across the table at each other as you share a memory of him that made you laugh? Sharing the pride you feel when people in her office share stories of her accomplishments? Writing of the joy on his granddaughter’s face as you stare at their picture?
By tapping into these emotions and learning how to write an obituary, are you tapping into emotions, appreciating your expeirences with your loved one, creating a timeline of stories which made up a life?
I wish you smiles and love and laughter, in addition to the typically much-needed tears that will come in this process of writing an obituary. I am oddly grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to provide this legacy for humans I love; what an honor! If you need help, inspiration, or an editing eye while writing your loved one’s obituary, reach out to me and we’ll ‘work’ to find your smiles, together. 🙂
Lynn Sherwood, End-of-life care educator and patient advocate— Lynn Sherwood-Humphries is an author, speaker and educator about End-of-Life Care Choices and communication. A serial entrepreneur, you might find her starting or revamping businesses for optimal success, competing in shooting sports, or hiking the hills surrounding her home in beautiful Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
If you know someone who is newly diagnosed with lung cancer (or are the person who loves that person), download a copy of Lynn’s FREE book, “Lung Cancer 101” (her labor of love after her daughter was diagnosed in 2018), HERE.