Writing your Own Eulogy

“Begin with the end in mind.” (From Stephen R. Covey: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic.)

Did you ever wonder about the veracity of the eulogies given at funerals? Was this really the same person you thought you once knew?

I know, I know. Eulogies are meant to convey the best of the deceased person, to leave us with happy memories. Eulogies are a way of honoring the person. Most people deserve to be honored in some way, do they not?

Now, maybe this is just the psychiatrist in me, but there may be some drawbacks, side effects if you will, in this practice, too. For one, so many times in my clinical practice, I later heard about the more negative aspects of the deceased, which just couldn’t get buried in the mind, despite – or because of – all the positive comments. That cognitive and emotional dissonance seemed to contribute to a complicated grief process, if not at times to lead to some clinical depression. Psychotherapy was then necessary to process the ambivalence and anger left behind. This is not the legacy most of us want to leave to our loved ones, even if we die with our own unresolved feelings toward them. 

I don’t think – or really know for sure – that we ever hear our own eulogies. Does that matter? Perhaps. For one thing, we may not have realized or appreciated our own strengths and accomplishments enough. 

What, then, might writing our own eulogy add? It could be a mechanism to pull our lives together, to compare the life we led to the life we once had wished we would have. My Rabbi son, who does so many eulogies himself, once recommended to me a book that covers this challenge – Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life – by the English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. Phillips points out that we can be haunted by a sense of falling short, and that we need to remove the idea that it is a failure of sorts not to meet our dreams. In a sense, we can spoil the life we have by downplaying its worth in comparison to the life we didn’t have. No one else can point out and close that gap as well as we can in our private deliberations. 

There are some ways to leave parts of a eulogy behind. One has been leaving what is called an ethical will. As valuable as that can be in conveying our values, it is more a matter of conveying our ideals, rather than who we are, or were. Our own eulogy can be more of a highlight – and lowlight – reel of our life, more akin to a mini-memoir. 

This personal eulogy is also not an end-of-life communication, although end-of-life wishes, including DNR orders, can be part of the process. This is especially important for those who end up with any degree of dementia. 

Let me take a practice run, then, while I can. I expect it will be subject to revision in the years remaining. Here, I’m using eulogy in the broadest sense, to include the gravestone, music, and maybe even some selected pictures. 

For my epitaph on a tombstone, how about “He Tried to Stay on the Ethical Way”? That is a reference to the publication I was most proud of, the book The Ethical Way: Challenges and Solutions for Managed Behavioral Healthcare. It also references how I increasingly tried to treat everybody, to convey respect and dignity to all with my moral compass. Even so, this epitaph is not enough, as it omits a comment on the most important person in my life, my wife Rusti. Maybe I need more time to make an adequate epitaph for her, if words are at all adequate enough. 

Next, I might mention some of the honors I received professionally. There was “Hero of Public Psychiatry” from the American Psychiatric Association. There was publicly being called “da man in ethics” and to “keep leading our leaders”. 

Uh-oh. Aren’t I following into the same trap, focusing on what sounds best, just what I was criticizing? 

To be critical, it’s easier to start with work. Even if I was a hero of any sort, I recently retired for my own emotional well-being, as well as to spend more time with my wife. Besides putting my personal needs first in retiring, I’m also sure that many others can remember when I strayed from the ethical way. 

The personal shortcomings are harder to point out. I should have called my parents more when I left home, and forgiven any lingering resentments. I was too mean to my wife early in our marriage. I spent time writing that may have been better spent with my two children. I didn’t value nearly enough the relationship with my younger sister until I aged. 

Before I get too sad, and to boost my spirits, let’s turn to some favorite music I would like sung or played at my funeral. I love jazz and my favorite piece is John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. Maybe that should be the essence of the other part of my epitaph, say “A Love Supreme for All Who I Loved”. For my wife specifically, I propose Irving Berlin’s song “Always”. For my children, “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof, which never fails to bring me to tears. Each of these songs can also be accompanied by an appropriate picture. 

Not to get too morbid, but I’ve even thought of what shirt I’d like to be buried in, especially if there is a coffin viewing. This is a shirt I only wear on my birthday. It has a Japanese print like a kimono. Both the design and my birthday, May 5, refer to the annual Children’s Day in Japan, where the happiness and health of children are honored. Being buried in this shirt will symbolically honor my children, grandchildren, and more, I hope. 

Surely, probably like almost everybody, all my dreams didn’t come true. But, more realistically, maybe what came true was more than I could have dreamed would really happen. Having said all of this, whatever anybody else would also like to add in a eulogy would now be fine with me. 

And you? Have you thought of what you would like said at your eulogy or written in your obituary? It can be therapeutic to at least think about it, or even to discuss with loved ones or a therapist. 

H. Steve Moffic, M.D., 67, retired from clinical practice at 66. He was fondly deemed a “psychiatric gadfly” by the Chair of the Department of Psychiatry where he first trained. His book The Ethical Way: Challenges and Solutions for Managed Behavioral Healthcare, published in 1997, was the first extended discussion of the ethics of managed mental health care.

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