Finding the Right Words at a Time of Loss
Whether it’s an obituary or a note to a grieving friend, putting compassion onto paper can be challenging. Here are some ideas on how to do it.
The night before my father died, I sat beside his bed, my laptop balancing on my knees. Earlier that day, before finishing our call, the funeral director said, "You need to start writing his obituary."
As a writer, this was the most daunting assignment I'd ever accepted, with the tightest deadline I'd ever had. I felt self-imposed pressure to craft a memorable tribute.
Composing an obituary for a loved one, or acknowledging someone's grief in a meaningful way, can be challenging. The good news: these tips can help you express your feelings when you're having trouble finding the right words to share.
Begin with the Basics
When staring at a blank page, start with standard information: full name, age, place of birth, date and place of death, a list of close family members, memorial service or funeral details, photos and where to send donations. These details should answer mourners' questions about plans for honoring your loved one.
"The obituary itself is about life and that person's life. It's about why their life mattered."
Go Beyond Listing Facts
"An obituary is not about death," says Clay Risen, obituary reporter for The New York Times. "But the obituary itself is about life and that person's life. It's about why their life mattered."
The background portion is an opportunity to highlight the person's accomplishments and interests. Risen says if you're trying to capture somebody in a sentence or a few sentences, decide what things you would point to, then write the obituary around that. "Try to pull in different aspects of their life to show what you're trying to say," he says.
He gives the example of his father, who was in international business and loved to travel. In his obituary, Risen explained his father's college career, his business career and his family life.
"For me, that was an attempt to show people that this is who he was, rather than just reciting a series of facts," Risen says. "You don't want to say this person was only about this one thing, say, if they loved sports. You want to make it as robust as possible."
Consider Focusing on the Funny
Laughter isn't usually associated with death, but there's no reason an obituary has to be serious. Humor writer Rachel Hebert Pavlik honored her dad with witty one-liners like "Men wanted to be him; women wanted him…to fix their garbage disposal" and "He believed laughter was always the best medicine, much to the dismay of his cardiologist, endocrinologist, hematologist, gastroenterologist and proctologist." She says he was known for his sense of humor, so a dry, factual obit wouldn't have worked.
If you feel close enough to the dying person, ask them what they want you to include.
Ask Others for Input
Before you commit to a final draft, ask family members, friends and colleagues to share memories about the person. "Ask them, 'What did he mean to you?' Or 'What were some standout moments for you?'" says Risen. Search their social media posts to spark memories and ensure you feature essential details in the finished version.
If you feel close enough to the dying person, ask them what they want you to include. You may be surprised at what they consider their most significant achievements. They could also provide suggestions for donations. My father specialized in treating Cystic Fibrosis (CF) patients, so we asked for contributions to the local CF chapter instead of flowers.
Acknowledge the Awkwardness Around Death
For some people, death is a taboo topic, so much so that they avoid friends or colleagues who have recently lost someone close to them. But even if you're uncomfortable around someone grieving, send a handwritten or electronic message to let your friend know they're on your mind.
Emma Payne, CEO of Help Texts, founded a text-based grief support service for those experiencing a loss and their supporters (friends, family and co-workers). The text messaging service sends personalized texts offering insight written by grief experts. It also reminds friends to check in with the person to see if they need anything, but mostly to stay in touch.
Payne knows first-hand about people shying away from someone mourning a recent loss. After her husband's suicide, she didn't hear from certain friends for years.
"People do well with general statements, like 'Grief and loss are so hard' or 'Death can be so difficult to make sense of.'"
"That's very painful for the griever because then they wonder why you're not trying to contact them," she says. "I heard the same thing again and again, which was: 'I'm so sorry I didn't reach out — I didn't know what to say.'" They felt awkward, and, for some, it was the first time they knew anyone who had died.
Use General Statements
Showing compassion through a card or a text can fall flat with the wrong wording. Writing "He lived a long life" and "Things happen for a reason" provides little comfort.
"People do well with general statements, like 'Grief and loss are so hard' or 'Death can be so difficult to make sense of,'" says Lisa Gilman, licensed clinical social worker and board-certified diplomate in New York.
Knowing that we are not the only ones who have lost someone can bring solace. But Gilman says most people don't want to hear about others' losses while they are in the midst of their own. "If you want to express empathy, simply stating that you know how hard it can be to lose someone can go a long way."
Keep Their Name Alive
Payne suggests using the deceased person's name in your message and including something you remember about them. Maybe spending time with them changed the course of your life. Or they inspired you to help others through their volunteer work.
When I took the pressure off myself to write the ideal obituary for the most influential person in my life, the words poured out at the same rate as my tears.
"It's an amazing opportunity to share a favorite memory: the time they took you swimming, that amazing fruitcake she knew how to make," she says. The tendency is to not bring up the late person's name for fear of triggering grief when, in fact, talking about the person can be comforting.
"It's difficult when you miss someone, and no one ever mentions their name again," Payne adds.
Invite a Conversation
Phrases like "I would like to help out" or "Would you like to talk or just sit together or do something distracting?" leave an opening for conversation. "Since death and loss can elicit feelings of being out of control, those kinds of offers can give the person some say as to how they want comfort without having to ask," says Gilman.
Let the person know you're there for them. Gilman suggests other sentiments like, "I know things must be very hard. Would you like to talk?" or "Is it ok if I call or text and check in?" Ask if they're up for visitors and let them know you will check in when things calm down, with no obligation to talk.
Payne recommends keeping one crucial point in mind: When a grieving person is sad, it's not your job to take the pain away. "It's your job to be there to listen and let them know you're thinking of them."
When I took the pressure off myself to write the ideal obituary for the most influential person in my life, the words poured out at the same rate as my tears. Creating a thoughtful tribute or condolence message can be difficult and overwhelming, particularly during emotional times. But sharing what's in your heart is better than not writing anything at all.