When my dad died in March, our family worked together to write the obituary. Each of us thought back on his life to decide the right stories to tell, the best details to share.
What career highlights or life accomplishments should we bring up? What was he known for? How could we best capture his personality?
Eventually we landed on a version of the obituary to publish in the local newspapers, to be read by family and friends and maybe a few strangers. People who didn’t know him got a glimpse of who he was. People who did know him wrote us lovely notes along the lines of, “Yes! That’s the man I remember!” or “I didn’t know that about him.”
For the funeral service, my brother wrote a eulogy. Eulogies are more personable than obituaries, as they tend to be presented through the lens of the speaker and reflect that relationship, though the eulogy might be delivered by a pastor who interviews people and pulls together their stories into one cohesive piece.
To Summarize a Life
Thinking back on a person and trying to summarize a life—that’s quite an undertaking. Sobering, too, for the person doing the thinking, writing, and summarizing.
As I wrote reflections about my dad for the service, I began to wonder about my own life. Maybe funerals bring that out in all of us who attend. We think about our lives today, our lives in the future.
What is a life?
What is…my life?
What would I want to be known for? What would someone include in my obituary? What accomplishments would they point to from my youth all the way through my retirement years? How would someone summarize my life?
What values would they remark on? What passions or hobbies? How would they describe my personality? What would they say was my legacy—what did I leave behind in the world?
Creative Writing Assignment
Creative writing teachers often make this assignment: to write your own obituary or eulogy.
But you don’t write it as if you’re going to die tomorrow. Don’t worry at all about when or how you might die. That’s not part of this reflection.
Instead, focus on how you will live. Project yourself into the future and try to imagine how you will have lived.
Just talking about it creates a verb tense challenge—following through with the assignment is a bit of a mind bender.
You project yourself into the future and reflect back on your life as if you’ve already lived it.
What life do you want to have lived?
By writing your own obituary, you figure out the life you’ve lived thus far, and the life you want to live from this point forward.
It’s a useful exercise for creative writing and…for life.
Viktor Frankl’s Daily Exercise, Expanded
Viktor Frankl offer a daily exercise that Donald Miller summarized in a blog post. Frankl “taught his patients to treat each day as though they were living it a second time, only this time around to not make the same mistakes.” It’s a mind trick. Miller points out it calls us to “evaluate the decisions we will make that day before we make them, and as such, avoid regret.” In other words, you live the day the way you intended to live it.
In a similar way, we can expand Frankl’s mind trick and look ahead at our entire life as though we are living it a second time, avoiding mistakes and making choices and decisions so that when we get to the end, we lived the life we intended to live.
Best Case Scenarios
This is not an exercise in playing out the future based on where we are at this moment, describing a depressing path assuming nothing changes. Don’t play out worst-case scenarios.
This is an opportunity to form the life we want to live, dreaming of possibilities if we continue good habits or change bad ones and start living differently today.
In doing so, we may avoid regret and build a life portfolio of sorts—so that someone can look back at this life we lived and built, and highlight something we hope is worth highlighting. We can help people in this world in the way we wanted to help.
We can write what we wanted to write.
And we’ll have that to leave behind, part of a legacy.
Then we move forward into the obituary we wrote. After many years of a long, long life, we will end well.
What Life Do You Want to Live?
What do you really want out of life?
What would it take to get to that life so that at the end, you have indeed fulfilled the vision you had when you generated it as a younger person.
As a writer, what body of work would you like to have left behind?
Write Your Own Obituary
Something about this exercise will push you to think about what you really want and recognize how critical it is to start living toward that every moment of every day.
I advise you take time to do this for yourself.
You could write it on your next birthday.
You could write it on January first of next year.
Or you could write it today.
In fact, I’m just going to say it: do it today. Write your obituary or your eulogy.
Don’t wait another day, because life is short.
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