The Power of an Obituary

I recently wrote two obituaries, which I published for Halloween (see my Halloween 2021 blog).  One was for the person I used to be, and the other for the person I hope to become. The latter was just goal setting, which is important, but the former proved to be a truly revealing and helpful exercise.

Obituaries focus on the positive aspects of a person’s life. One tries not to speak ill of the dead. Writing it for “J,” my former self, as if she were a stranger, set me on a journey that helped me reconnect to the person I had been before decades of mental, physical, fiscal and emotional abuse ground me down and convinced me that I was ugly, unlovable, useless, and unworthy of anything good in life, including basic, human kindness and minimal consideration. It also revealed to me a shocking truth that may, perhaps, be obvious to some, but that I had not realized before now. More importantly, I think what I learned could be useful to others.

I started the exercise doubting that I could find anything nice to say about J. I didn’t hate her. It was much worse than that. I pitied her. I had come to believe all the things my parents, my brother, and especially my husband and his parents, and even some of my own children had ever expressed about how useless, unlovable, unwanted, doomed to failure J was and had always been. I knew she had sincerely meant well, been truly, deeply loving, faithful, honest, hard-working and determined, and had always given her best to everyone around her, but obviously her best had proved worthless, just as everyone she had ever loved had said it was. How could I possibly find enough good in such a pitiful failure of a person to write an obituary for her?

I applied to life-long, though now distant friends, including some with whom I had reconnected since the divorce, asking what they remembered about me during the active years of our friendships. To my surprise they described a person completely different than the awful one my loved ones had convinced me I was. When I asked one person to comment on my worst faults, which I could easily list, I was shocked that she didn’t recognize many of those faults as applying to me. She reminded me of events we had shared together where I had naturally behaved in ways that refuted what I had just described, establishing my consistent patterns of behavior as, in some ways, exactly opposite to what I had come to believe about myself.

One of the faults my husband and children had berated me for so often it had practically become a mantra in our family was that I was “tactless.” One friend provided examples of when she felt I had been the opposite, including from earlier in that very conversation. Another friend agreed that this criticism was probably valid, pointing out that I was a “truth-teller” and adding that the truth would always be badly received by those who didn’t want it, no matter how kindly or diplomatically it was stated. With that one phrase she turned what had always been my most frustrating fault – one that I had striven with all my might to correct and had failed – into a virtue. It also made me consider (especially in light of more recent evidence) that perhaps my “tactlessness” had never been how I said things, but rather was the response of my loved ones toward me daring to speak at all. Certainly my husband and his parents had always hated me for that and many of the others had told me, since the divorce, when I started sharing more of my personal experiences and observations with others outside the family, that I should just shut up and tell no one anything at all about myself, ever. I hadn’t realized it then, but I wonder, now, if it is because they were aware of how truly abusive their behavior toward me was. I was, at that point, still believing their cruelty toward me was normal behavior and deserved by me. As I am starting to reconnect with others outside my family after the divorce, however (as in this exercise, for instance), I am learning that the way I had been treated was NOT normal, nor could it be considered acceptable under any circumstances. My husband, my brother, and others almost certainly realized that fact, even though I still didn’t. Now I wonder if convincing me that I was offensive to others whenever I tried to say anything at all was a tactic to keep me silent about their abuse so they would not appear as bad as they knew they deserved to for the way they were treating me. It, at least, gives me something to consider.

Overall, my friends presented a new and very different view of me than I had ever known. For this part of the exercise, alone, it was worth the effort. Thank God for my kind, wonderful friends.

The next step, however, was to actually write the obituary. To do so, of course, I had to refer to my prior, now deceased self in third person. Just that simple grammar shift from “I” to “she”, which should have been insignificant, made a massive difference in my attitude that I had not expected.

Toward myself, I am generally harsh and probably far more critical than even the worst of my external critics has ever been, though, obviously, I was never as condescending or contemptuous. While everyone else knew that they were better than me (who in the world wasn’t?), I could not possibly be better than myself. Even so, I am quick to berate myself for every failure (of which there are too many) and every misspeak, every mistake, every accident, and every imperfection, no matter how slight. My successes and virtues are barely noted and can never be enough, but anything bad about me forces my attention as something I must examine thoroughly and remedy, causing me to fixate on my faults to such a degree that my faults seem to be everything about me with nothing good in me to compensate. It is an echo of what all my loved ones throughout my life have constantly told me about myself, except magnified. I now realize that I had internalized the external abuse and was carrying it with me wherever I went. (For a fuller discussion of this see my blog “Why and How I Became My Worst Abuser”)

Switching to third person caused me to think of my former self as someone other than myself. I was now writing about another person – one whom I could consider as a stranger. Suddenly J was no longer the person I had been raised to despise as someone deserving every cruelty and completely unworthy of any love or kindness. In third person, J became someone about whom I could be objective as I tried find something good that I could honestly say about her.

I am in the habit from childhood of trying to be encouraging and uplifting to others – to find what is good in them and to reflect it back so they could see the beauty in themselves that I see. I do this because of the profound impact it has had on me the few times in my life a stranger was kind enough to do this for me. There have been moments when it was practically life-saving. Once or twice I wondered if the stranger might have been an angel sent by God to give me the encouragement I desperately needed at that moment. It takes almost no effort to do and, knowing how important a kind word can be, it seems the least I can offer to repay the world for this kindness given to me. I rush to say honest praise while I try to avoid criticizing unless it is truly necessary. This habit, which I had never before applied to myself, suddenly kicked in when I switched to writing about my departed self in third person.

To my shock, I found that there was a lot of good in J. In fact, she was someone whom I would have really liked, even admired, and found truly worthy of love and friendship had she been anyone else besides me. All the while I was hating myself for my seemingly overwhelming faults, J was demonstrating quite a lot of outstanding qualities that I would have appreciated had she been anyone else. I had been eager to expel her from my life. Now I’m almost sorry she is gone. It made writing her obituary very easy.

So now I recognize the trap of writing and thinking in first person for a person taught from birth to hate herself. “I” becomes irrationally detestable, no matter what. I have learned that it is healthy to regularly look at oneself from a different perspective, in order to obtain a more objective and, hopefully, honest assessment of one’s self. For me this exercise of writing about myself in third person revealed the destructive tendency I had to focus on my faults to the exclusion of all else, even long after those who had seemed to demand impossible perfection from me, in order for me to hopefully become barely tolerable to them, are no longer a part of my life. From now on, when my external critics pile their condemnation on me and try to grind me down, as they continue to do regularly, I’ll set myself up as judge over Aoife and write a brief to see how much, if any, of the criticism of my loved ones is truly applicable to her. I know I won’t ever be perfect, but I’m growing increasingly sure I am not nearly as horrible as my loved ones have always insisted. I now have a tool to help me assess myself more fairly.

I share this with you, dear reader, in the hope that you might try out this exercise to see what it reveals to you about you. Of course you may not need it, but I imagine it would be useful to many different kinds of people in many different situations. If you are willing, I would love to hear what you learn.