How do you write an obituary for someone who dies a tragic death? This year has given us senseless deaths in abundance. And the more parties are at fault, the more complicated grief can be, since families don’t know where to channel their anger. When people die violently or just suddenly and tragically—as with the 12 residents killed in the Bronx apartment fire on December 28—the finger of blame often points in several directions:
- Were the 59 Las Vegas shooting deaths the shooter’s fault—period? Or did he have access to weapons and gun modifications that should be legally available only to those in uniform? Or perhaps the mental health system failed him?
- When a person who lacks basic necessities dies by suicide in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, does it count as a suicide death, a natural disaster, or a failure of government?
- When the next person dies of an opioid overdose—one of 52,000 such deaths per year in the United States—with whom does the blame lie? The addicted person? The doctor who wrote the prescription? The pharma company that manufactures the drug? Makers of public policy who refuse to legalize access to naloxone (Narcan), an overdose antidote? Law enforcement hardliners who refuse to carry naloxone? It’s complicated.
If you’re faced with the unwelcome task of memorializing someone who has died a tragic death, you have a choice to make:
- Skirt the issue. You can avoid giving the cause of death. Doing so ignores the elephant in the room, leaving curious readers to fill in the blanks with gossip and conjecture. But staying mum also preserves your own privacy and that of the family and the obituee. If that’s important to you, or you know that’s what the obituee would have wanted, you’re within your rights to sidestep the issue of the person’s tragic death.
- Keep the focus on the obituee. You can give the cause of death briefly, either in general terms (“was the victim of a violent crime”) or with specificity (“was shot during a drug-related dispute“), and then quickly move on, focusing the remaining obituary on the obituee, sharing stories and memories, paying tribute to his accomplishments, and highlighting what you’d like people to remember about him. You might even want to build a full-scale virtual memorial. (If so, see this spreadsheet, in which I compare the cost and features of about 90 different digital afterlife services.)
- Make a statement. Your other option is to use the obituary as a platform to raise awareness about, say, domestic violence or water safety or depression, in the hope of preventing any similar tragic death. Maybe that’s precisely what the obituee would have wanted you to do. But it’s difficult to do both — that is, focus on the obituee’s life and send a social message. That doesn’t mean you should leave out personal stories and memories about the obituee when you speak out. In fact, you absolutely should bring the obituee to life with specific details, since any appeal becomes all the more powerful (and more interesting, frankly) when you put a human face on it. But using the obituary as a stage swings the spotlight toward the issue and away from your loved one. If you do go this route, make a passionate but well-reasoned appeal. Don’t let emotion cloud your message. Avoid hurling insults, cursing, calling people names, or simply railing against people or institutions. A statement made with quiet dignity, even with an undercurrent of anguish and outrage roiling beneath it, is more powerful than mockery or slurs.
You may find that your sorrow, shock, and despair are simply too fresh for you to tamp them down and write an obituary of any kind. If so, hand off the task to someone else. You undoubtedly have trusted family members and close friends who have offered to help “if you need anything.” Take one of them up on it.Asking a dependable friend to step in is a better option than using an outdated obituary template, which will boil your loved one down into a thin soup of names, date, and middle-management positions.
But write the obituary yourself if you feel strong enough. (For help getting started, download my Quick-Start Guide to Writing an Online Obituary.) Whether you create a beautiful tribute to honor your loved one’s memory or make a public statement about the issue that’s now irrevocably changed your life, crafting an obituary is a final gift to the obituee and may be the first step toward healing for yourself.
(Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force, by Tech. Sgt. Mark R. W. Orders-Woempner)