Being a freelance writer, I’m often called upon when people need help with words. Cover letters, website content, school efficacy reports, fundraising appeals … I’ve written them all and helped various clients with giving voice to their own words and work. But helping an acquaintance write a eulogy for a loved one was a new experience for me.
I’ve known Jane* for several years, as we are both members of the local running community. She is a runner, a friend, a grandmother … and while Jane and I never spent time socializing outside of running events, her warm demeanor and conversations always made me feel like I belonged in this local running community that I’d only come to know in the last several years.
On a Sunday afternoon, Jane sent me a message requesting a private writing class. Her cousin, who is in hospice, asked her to write her eulogy. Jane said time is of the essence and asked to meet sooner, rather than later. Jane is not a writer, but she loves her cousin fiercely and wants to honor her life.
Of course I will help you, I replied to Jane, and we made an appointment to meet the next afternoon at a local coffee shop.
A eulogy is arguably one of the most important expressions of a person’s life. They are, essentially, collections of stories we have to remember a person who is no longer living. Storytelling is as old as the human experience and stories are the gifts we give our children and future generations; a way to pass along memories and knowledge. It is in this piece of writing that we speak of one’s character and pay tribute to a life gone — it’s the way we celebrate a life. So the idea of writing a eulogy is an almost Herculean task, because how does one decide which stories best express the essence of a person?
I sat across from Jane at the coffee shop, both of us sipping on unsweetened iced teas. She pulled out various papers and notebooks filled with cursive sentences on each page. She started reading stories and memories about her cousin, Anne*. She recited memories of Anne’s selfless nature … how she took her many children camping at a local park during summer in order to give her kids a meaningful “vacation” experience. How Anne gave so much of her own money away, choosing to help others over helping herself. She told me about Anne’s love of sports and family, how she regularly donated her own blood and how she always saw the good in people, even when the good was hard to find.
I listened to her tell these stories, humbled not only by Anne’s nature, but also Jane’s commitment to her cousin; her promise to do something as emotionally difficult as writing a eulogy in order to not disappoint this person she admired and loved so much. At one point, Jane told me there are so many wonderful stories, but she just didn’t know where to start to tell them. It was at this point, when Jane was emotionally overwhelmed, that I pulled out my laptop and started writing. I told Jane not to think about the speech or how it sounds … just tell me the stories about Anne. That was her only job at that moment.
I typed out those stories into my computer and began putting them in order, filling in word gaps and creating transitions. In my head, I heard the words and stories spoken out loud, as a priest or loved one would give at a memorial service. I got to know Anne and Jane through these stories and it made me think about my own life. … What would someone say about me after I was gone?
When our time was over, I gave Jane the draft eulogy that she could use as a starting point and offered to continue talking her through the stories she would continue to add. She insisted on paying me for our time, to which I refused.
“I can’t take your money, not for something like this,” I told her. Unbeknownst to Jane, I started to cry when she was offering me payment. Because the truth is, sitting with Jane, listening to her stories and helping her give Anne this beautiful gift … that was payment enough.
We think about death as scary … as a gateway to the unknown. We often fear dying, seeing it as an ending, synonymous with sadness and loss. We cry at funerals and the knowledge that our loved ones are no longer with us. Even those who have a deep faith in the next life, who believe their beloved is going to a better place, grieve those who are gone.
But in many ways, death can be a doorway to so much more. In this case, through death came connection … to others and to life. I felt a deep kinship with Jane, a person I only knew tangentially before we sat together and she honored me with her family stories. And I left our meeting feeling renewed, deeply proud to do this work … to craft words into stories and write a eulogy and help a family celebrate a treasured life.