This post first appeared on December 29, 2017, just after the Bronx apartment fire that killed 12 people. Since then, “Tragic Death and Obituary Writing” has become one of the most popular posts on this site. The year 2018 has given us senseless deaths in abundance. The nation was horrified but not surprised by the Parkland school shooting on Valentine’s Day, which left 17 people dead. Also making headlines was a series of package bombings in Austin that killed two people before the alleged bomber took his own life. Flying under the radar were two murder/suicides characterized as acts of domestic violence: men in Kentucky (February 10) and Detroit (February 26) each killed 5 people, including themselves.
How do you write an obituary for someone who dies a tragic death? 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 heartbreaking deaths of two children hit by a car in Brooklyn on March 5—the finger of blame often points in several directions:
- Were the 59 Las Vegas shooting deaths (October 2017) 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 70,000 such deaths per year in the United States—who takes the blame? 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 cause of the person’s tragic death.
- Keep the focus on the obituee. You can give the cause of death briefly, either in general terms (for example, “died by suicide” or “was the victim of a violent crime”) or with specificity (“was shot during a drug-related dispute“), and then quickly move on. Focus 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, family violence or water safety or addiction, in the hope of preventing any similar tragic death. Maybe that’s precisely what the obituee would have wanted you to do. It can be difficult to do both — that is, focus on the obituee’s life and use the obituary as a soapbox. But that doesn’t mean you should leave out personal stories and memories about the obituee. In fact, you absolutely should bring the obituee to life with specific details, since any social message becomes all the more powerful (and more interesting, frankly) when you put a human face on it. But be aware that using the obituary as a stage swings the spotlight toward the issue and away from your loved one. It’s a trade-off that might be worth making, but only you and your family can make that call. If you do go this route, make a passionate but well-reasoned appeal. It’s fine to show emotion—how could you not?—but avoid hurling insults, cursing, calling people names, or simply railing against people or institutions. A statement made with quiet dignity, even one with a seething undercurrent of anguish and outrage, 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, dates, and middle-management positions.
But write the obituary yourself if you feel strong enough. (For help getting started, download this 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 this obituary is a final gift the person you’ve lost. It can also be the first step toward your own healing.
(Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force, by Tech. Sgt. Mark R. W. Orders-Woempner)