Jim Sheeler, one of the best professors I had at university, won the 2006 Pulitzer for Feature Writing with a 12,000-word article about a U.S. Marine Casualty Assistance Calls Officer. Sheeler specialized in writing obituaries, a fact I found difficult to wrap my head around. I had never really read obits, or even considered them as more than a death notification. But obituaries are far more important than I knew in 2008, and it took losing people of my own to appreciate a well-written obit.
Nothing is harder to write than the obituary of a loved one. As the family writer, it tends to fall to me to put a few words together. It puts me in an interesting position; I'm so close to the situation that the task feels impossible. Yet, a part of me is still able to pull away and approach it like an assignment.
When my grandfather passed away last Tuesday, my mind went immediately to that class with Mr. Sheeler. How can I restrict myself to "a few words"? It's not enough. The distillation of a lifetime to an ounce of meaningful material is like trying to fit a sleeping bag into a Ziploc baggy. But then, I remember what I learned all those years ago. In the end, it's not about distilling a life, even if that's what it feels like. It's about telling a story.
First, though, I have to decide what kind of story I want to tell. Do I talk about how much he loved his family? His pranks? Do I talk about him growing up on the farm, or the jobs he took to support his kids and wife? He was a simple guy, and to the outside eye, it wouldn't seem like he was very interesting. That's the tricky part of the story–to portray the kind of depth you might find in a hidden pool without making it seem like just another hole filled with water.
I'll be working on this obit for the rest of the week–I want it to sound just right. Obituaries, for me, are also a way to work through the loss of a loved one. Even if you didn't write it yourself, it can be comforting to see how a person's story ended.
Michelle is thankful for work vacations, holiday cookies, and the best family and friends ever.