Early in my career in education, I attended a Board of Education meeting where one of the agenda items was the elimination of all Elementary Assistant Principals. As I sat in the dark auditorium, I listened to members of the community come to the microphone to express their opinions on the motion. Many spoke in support of the positions and on behalf of those of us who were about to be terminated. While most referenced the value of the position, they also celebrated the difference we made in the lives of children and families. Several talked about the contributions they felt I made to our particular school community. When it was over and, the Board moved on to the next agenda item, someone who was sitting behind me leaned forward the said, “Isn’t it nice not to have had to die to hear such nice things said about you?”
Years later, I attended a funeral and listened as a member of the family spoke tenderly and lovingly and authentically about the deceased. Having known them both for many years, I was surprised to hear the depth of caring and love that I had never heard or seen in their daily interactions. I found myself wondering if each had indeed known how the other felt.
It’s been my experience that when people speak at a funeral, they put aside the bumps, conflicts, and the “stuff” of life that often comes between people and what is left are the heartfelt feelings of the foundation of their relationship. They remember aloud to the congregation the reason they felt connected to the departed and the values they appreciated and celebrated. And it’s also been my experience to hear some of them remark later on, that they wished they had conveyed those sentiments directly to him or her, while they were alive. Somehow, we seem to think we have plenty of time to get around to those conversations, or we make the assumption that others already know how we feel. I think, often, they don’t.
My purpose here is to pass on an idea I’ve had since those early career days when that voice behind me alerted me to the celebration of my value to others that I was able to hear first hand. What if each of us made the commitment to honor someone we know by hosting a Living Eulogy? We create a venue where we invited friends and family to speak a few words of gratitude and appreciation and to acknowledge the value this person has added to their lives. I believe that most recipients, although a bit uncomfortable, would carry those words and feelings with them for the rest of their lives. And the guests would find joy and comfort in knowing they didn’t wait until it was too late to express their feelings.
Some time ago, I shared this idea with George and a friend of his. His friend suggested I call it SIN (Say it Now), a phrase that continues the notion of pushing past the discomfort some of us have in sharing our feelings directly with friends and family. That is, we make an agreement with ourselves to seize opportunities to tell people, on the spot, what we appreciate about them. Four months ago, I lost my dear friend Ralph. Although we lived about two hours apart for most of our fifty plus years as friends, we regularly carved out time to see each other. And with each visit, we both found an opportunity to tell each other what our friendship meant to us. When he died, there was no question in my mind that he knew how I felt about him and why. There was nothing left to say other than good-bye.
A year ago last October my close friend Teresa decided to celebrate her dad, Bart. She had been thinking about it for some time but finally spoke with her siblings and set the date. Even though he was turning 90 at the end of December and was in relatively good health at the time, she, along with her brothers, invited her dad’s friends and family to a mid October gathering “just because.” There was lots of sharing of memories, embellished stories that generated lots of belly laughs, and expressions of appreciation and love for this wonderful man. As I understand it, he felt deeply moved, as did the people who came to celebrate him. Teresa shared this with me recently. “Two days after our celebration he was walking to his mailbox and saw his granddaughter and said to her, with his smiling eyes and infectious smile, ‘wasn’t that a great party?” One week later he was admitted to the hospital for a gall bladder issue and one month later he died of a heart condition.
However we choose to let people know we value them, we should do so when we think of it; there may not be another opportunity…for them or for us.
As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts and stories.
Say it, Show it!
I’ve been to a few Quaker funerals over the years which are celebrations of life rather than the sadness of goodbye’s. They always uplifted me and I’ve been able to speak at a few of my former students’ funerals. It is truly an honor to express your impressions and gratitude for being in people’s lives for however long you are given. My brother’s funeral was also a celebration of his life. Several former students of his spoke and brought the place to tears. They even sang a song from one of his musicals that he produced and directed in his many fifth grade classes. I lost it at that point!
But so much for eulogies! Life presents itself with many opportunities to share such feelings. Work related testimonials, retirements, birthday celebrations, TGIF’s at the local pub. All great opportunities to tell people how significant and important they have been to you. People are significant in all different ways. The co worker whose diligence and integrity have always impressed you- tell them right then and there! The neighbor who mowed your lawn just because-tell them. Your friends who gave up a Saturday to help you move- tell them. Your kids who did something that made you proud- tell them. Your partner who showed how much you are loved – don’t let these moments go unrecognized. And if it is appropriate and the relationship is close don’t just tell them, show them. Hugs are great incentives to continue being loving, thoughtful people.
Words have power. Recently my daughter came to me discouraged about her work and asked me how I dealt with negative feedback and rudeness. I had to think for a few minutes before I answered her. I asked her if she had gotten any positive feedback and of course she had. I asked her to weigh the positive feedback against the negative. Which would be the most valuable? I advised her never to let go of people’s compliments and gratitude and to remind herself every time she gets criticized of the good things she has been called out for. I really think she felt better. I have to do that a lot myself!
Hen always brings positive gifts to the table. He doesn’t waste time on gossip or negativity – he’s a builder. ‘Constructive’ would be a perfect word to describe Hen’s contribution in any discussion. His idea of a living eulogy builds on the foundational elements of a relationship – putting aside the bumps and conflicts and ‘stuff of life’ that comes between people. Rather, he focuses on what is structural, solid, and praiseworthy in a person’s architecture.
I love the concept. It guides folks to share their feelings publically – in a group – and directly to an individual. It recognizes the positive effect of the individual’s being-in-the-world. It is affirmative.
Yet, the association of eulogy and death makes me stumble a bit – shouldn’t, but it does. It leads me to think of it as a last rite, which likely is not the impetus of Hen’s idea. I’d need to rehearse the mechanics of the process, particularly when and how to invoke a living eulogy. Would you introduce the idea to an honoree: “Look, we’re going to hold a living eulogy for you, because you mean so much to us?” Once the event is completed, does that signal permission to slide into end of life? Is it ‘one and done’, and everything goes back to business as usual? If not, what is the logical next step?
Seems like it’s better to express these feelings continually – as Hen and Ralph did. Unfortunately, we don’t do that well enough or regularly enough, which is why Hen proposes the living eulogy. My wife and I discussed Hen’s idea. She felt that even if people felt uncomfortable with public speaking, there is benefit is simply treating this as a mental exercise – planning what you would say and acting on it at a time of your choosing.
Mark Twain famously said that ‘he could live for two months on a compliment’. We all thrive in an environment of positive feedback. I belong to a woodworking club which honors a Member of the Year at our annual dinner. We each get up to talk about the person, remember some past achievement or funny interaction, and provide a plaque and some gag gifts. The honoree feels good, but I believe that the club feels even better: telling how you feel is a greater gift to the teller, than to the receiver. As well, the honoree is around to participate in the following year’s celebration.
And sure, a living eulogy does not have to be a formal event. What’s important is the regularity. Also, why not pay it forward? After a person is honored, ask that person to select the next honoree and plan the event? Keep it going — not ‘one and done’, but allow folks to be cycled back into the mix.