Column: Writing obituaries is a lesson in life

08/10/2013 10:00 AM |

The first time I wrote an obituary was Feb. 27, 2012. It was for my mother-in-law, who had died the day before. She was a wonderful person whose life was cut short by a terrible disease. It was the hardest piece I’ve ever written.

My husband’s family designated me as the writer at the funeral home, mostly because I worked at the local paper. I had never written anything using Associated Press style, and was a distraught family member. Did I include how much she loved her husband? Did I include how much she loved her sons and her grandsons? Do I mention how much she loved all of us — even those who came by luck and not by blood?

LAURA HUBER

Each time I read the obituary, I cried. I cried when I called my coworker. I kept saying, “We thought we had more time.”

This was about a year before it became my job to write obituaries for this newspaper. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Closer,” you’ve heard Jude Law’s character discuss his job as an obituary writer, stoically, in a British accent, and then discuss the euphemisms they use to reflect alternative lifestyles.

When people find out I write obituaries, they ask me if it’s depressing. I usually tell them I balance it out with weddings and births, but that’s not true. I see many, many more obituaries than I do weddings or births, thanks to social media.

But I don’t really find obituaries depressing. They’ve taught me some important lessons about my own life, and given me some healthy advice, which I will now pass along.

Write your own obituary now

I have met with best friends, life partners and grieving family members. Some know every intimate details about the life of the person they’re telling me about. Some don’t know much at all. Each of us has a different part of our life story.

For me, my parents have the beginning piece; my husband, family and friends can fill in; and my children and, hopefully grandchildren, will have the later chapters.

Each person would tell a very different story. Nobody will tell my story the way I want it. They’ll all be grieving. They’ll be trying to remember the meals I made, the hugs I gave them and the way I made them laugh. They don’t need a stranger asking them what my mother’s maiden name was.

If I write it now, they can celebrate, remember, cry and fill in the new details. I’ll update it from time to time, put it in a place where everyone can find it, and won’t have to worry about anyone spelling Catrow with a K.

Live a life worth writing about

I’ve written and read about people who sailed around the world, served in wars, taught children to read or took care of their grandchildren.

Whatever you do, do it with passion and love. Don’t care if anyone else thinks you’re crazy. If you love to write, start a blog. If you love music, play it loudly. If you love car racing, get on the track. You are more than the desk you sit behind or the children you birthed. Live passionately, at least a little bit, every day. Love what you do and who you are.

Have empathy for the grieving

Everyone grieves differently. When I talk to a woman who can’t find her purse because her son just died, I listen. When I speak with a woman who is angry with the coroner’s office, I listen. Sometimes, I get off the phone, I take a deep breath, wipe my eyes and move on to the next obituary. I have to.

My heart breaks for these people, and their loss. Each one of the living has a story and a connection, the same way each obituary tells a story.

Live each day as if it’s your last

I’ve written obituaries for infants, teenagers, people my age, people in their 90s. Each day is a gift, and the next one may not be there. However you live, live life as though it may not be there the next day.

Take time to hug your children and tell them you love them. Don’t hold grudges with family or friends. Hug your parents, even when they drive you crazy. Someday, they won’t be here.

After I hang up the phone with families, I hope that I have helped each person in a small way. I’m just a tiny piece of the puzzle, but I’m really lucky to learn about so many different lives and people.

We all have stories, and I’m privileged to tell them.

Ms. Huber is an editorial assistant with Times/Review Newsgroup. She can be reached at lhuber@timesreview.com or 631-298-3200, ext. 250.

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