After you walk out of the room after a vent withdrawal (or terminal wean or allowing natural death), the room gets pretty quiet.
At one room, while the family was waiting for their matriarch to pass,
she actually kicked them out of her room. Twice.
Someone was by her bed, stroking her arm: “Quit petting me,”
Her family was sitting around, quietly, respectfully. “Quit staring at me.”
Do you want coffee? Am I dead? If I’m not dead, I might as well have coffee.
Sometimes in that silence I tell families to say “thank you.” Because it’s helpful to the family and maybe to the loved one to actually know how they feel.
The family members start talking about how much they love the person. They talk about the moments that mattered. They talked about how much they will miss the person. They start thanking this person for the ways they were helped.
In the best situations, people are remembering together and out loud, making sure that this person hears that they mattered to these people.
“Here’s what we know, all of us in this room. Those bedside messages, those shaky zoom calls, often are too late to encourage the person in the bed.”
The person in the bed is often not able to respond, often not able to hear.
They can’t really hear
the words that could have been helpful to them,
that would have let them know that their life mattered,
that their presence on earth was significant,
that they hadn’t spent their whole life letting people down.
Because often, in those last days, that’s how people feel. Like they failed. Like they were a burden.
See, even people who are dying have messed up soundtracks.
Eventually, some of those words will turn into a eulogy at a funeral service.
Eulogy is a Greek word that simply means good words. Eu, good. Logos. Words.
It’s telling others what we appreciate about the life and actions and character of a person. You’ve heard them, right?
“When I think of my dad, three things come to mind: fishing, food, and ___”
And then the person tells us why fishing mattered and what we learned
As I was preparing to talk with you today, knowing what many of us know about the end of life, I started to think about writing eulogies for the living.
What if we thought about the people we care about most.
and rather than waiting for the inevitable end of life,
we started talk to the people that we love more than anyone
about how much they matter,
about what they actually mean to the people around them?
I’ve spent time around funerals and memorial services. And the best eulogies have two important sections.
First, eulogies identify the actions and characteristics that matter.
“Eddie was a great guy” isn’t much of a eulogy. And it’s not much of a compliment.
What did Eddie do?
He always worked in the background making sure that other people had what they needed to succeed, like a ride or a car or $10, like a clean workspace.
He always looked for something to say that was helpful in really hard moments.
He always showed up on time.
The second part to a good eulogy is expressing what we actually feel.
Telling our kids that we are proud of them.
Telling our kids that we love them.
Telling our life partners that we see their work and their fear as we go to work and we are grateful for them.
Awhile back, a coworker and I had one of those shifts.
Between us, we talked a couple times with the family of a 16w miscarriage, an AMI, a stroke, a couple pastoral visits.
Back in the office, she said,
“I appreciate working together. We can tag team pages and requests. That’s not true about everyone. I wanted to mention it.”
She identified the skill or the moment, talked about how it was distinctive, and offered affirmation.
The truth? If that were my eulogy, it would be enough.
“He tag-teamed well in caring for patients.”
This process of identifying the actions and characteristics that matter and then expressing how we feel can take some work. We may find that we don’t know the people close to us as well as we would like.
When I needed to write my dad’s eulogy, I finally had a chance to read some files that were in his file cabinet, documents he had never shared. They shaped the words I said about him that day.
But I wish I had known about his time away from his family in the military. I wish I had known more about my parents relationship of encouragement and challenge.
But this one time, I wanted to understand him, to be able to affirm him. This one time, I did it right.
My dad fought in Korea. Or, more accurately, he served in Korea.
He was in the army version of internal affairs, investigating, among other things, drug trafficking inside the army.
Which means that he never talked about what he did.
A couple times he talked about his experiences before he went, driving a bus with other soldiers, hearing the order to not have cameras and so making a show of tossing the case overboard, hiding the camera in his pocket.
And he talked a little about helping out the chaplain.
But I wanted to know more. And I knew better than to ask.
So I bought and read Max Hastings “The Korean War.” And read another history of the war.
One day, we were walking through a war museum near Chicago, and we stopped in front of the 12 foot high map of Korea.
“That had to be frustrating,” I said. “Starting here, and then going to here, and then to there, and then back to here.” I pointed.
And we talked about how awful it was, as I identified things and then had him confirm them.
And in that conversation, I was able to offer a small eulogy to the living. Words of support for my dad before he died.
So start asking questions about feelings, about responses, about memories. Research the life of loved ones for things you’d love to ask about if they died.
So how do you write a eulogy to the living?
- Notice actions and characteristics that matter
- Identify how that encourages or challenges you
- Tell them.
- And tell them again.
- And put it in writing.
Start writing your eulogies now. What are the things that you would say about the people you care most about?
A couple things will happen.
It’s more helpful than spending our time together complaining about the stupid people around us.
It lets people know that they matter to us.
It gives them something to live into.
My friend lee warren is a neurosurgeon. He talks about how our thinking can actually rewire our brains.
AND WE CAN CHANGE THE SOUNDTRACKS IN THE BRAINS OF OUR LOVED ONES BY TELLING THEM NOW THAT WE LOVE THEM. AND WHAT MATTERS.
It takes practice, of course, like all breathing treatments. But a conversation at a time. A person at a time. And we’ll get better.
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