January 30, 2014
There. I’ve said it. I read – and enjoy – the obituaries every day. I don’t read every single death notice word for word, but I scan them all. I read about people I know or have heard of, of course, but sometimes the obituary of a stranger grabs my attention. Often it’s the photograph, but sometimes it’s the name, the age, or some other thing that makes me want to hear the life story of someone I’ve never met but who must have meant something to somebody.
Some obituaries are terribly sad and tragic. I recently saw two side-by-side about a mother and her young child who had been killed in a car wreck, leaving behind a grieving husband/father and other children/siblings. Some are inspiring, like the ones about people who fought valiant battles against illness or injury or who had devoted their lives to helping others or spreading joy. Some are heartwarming because they are written with such tenderness, sometimes with a touch of humor. I will never forget one I read years ago about a man who had apparently lived a lifetime with developmental disabilities. The obituary described a gentle, child-like man who saw it as his job to turn out the lights every night in the living room of the group home where he resided “…whether there were people in the room or not.” I really like the ones that talk about people who die peacefully and surrounded by loved ones. It’s so reassuring to be reminded that death can be a gentle experience. And I have a special appreciation for the ones that were clearly written by the deceased themselves. I think that’s because, being a control freak, I have a draft of my own obituary in a file somewhere.
But the ones I enjoy most are those about very old people who, the obituaries inform us, have done surprising and fascinating things. One of my favorites was about a woman who could have been anybody’s grandma but who, in her younger years, had been a trick rider and had been inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. The sad thing is, I’ll bet that except for her family, the people who probably cared for her in her last days knew little of her adventurous and exciting youth. To most of her caregivers, I imagine she was just a sweet, old woman – not a rock ‘em, sock ‘em cowgirl and Queen of the Rodeo!
In my work singing with elders with dementia, I have come to see that this is often the case. A lot of people who are in the end stages of their lives can no longer tell their own stories. And even in the best facilities and with the most compassionate and attentive caregivers, their stories can be lost. I had the experience myself when I read the obituary of a woman I had been singing to for months. To me, she was a frail, confused soul who, based on the photos of children that filled her room, was somebody’s grandma. But turns out, she had been a Braniff Airways stewardess, which was a pretty exciting – some would say daring – occupation for a woman of her generation. That revelation completely altered my impression of her – and made me understand why she seemed to enjoy hearing me sing “Fly Me to the Moon” so much.
So, for those who have aging parents, spouses or friends being cared for by people who don’t know them very well, here’s my advice: Along with pictures of the grandkids, put out lots of photographs of your loved ones, at various ages and stages of life, doing the things that brought them joy and made them unique. Then everyone will see and connect and interact with them as the people they really were . . . and still are. Because as much as I love a good obituary, sometimes it’s a little too late.