Writing your Own Eulogy

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“Begin with the end in mind.” (From Stephen R. Covey: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Restoring the Character Ethic.)

Did you ever wonder about the veracity of the eulogies given at funerals? Was this really the same person you thought you once knew?

I know, I know. Eulogies are meant to convey the best of the deceased person, to leave us with happy memories. Eulogies are a way of honoring the person. Most people deserve to be honored in some way, do they not?

Now, maybe this is just the psychiatrist in me, but there may be some drawbacks, side effects if you will, in this practice, too. For one, so many times in my clinical practice, I later heard about the more negative aspects of the deceased, which just couldn’t get buried in the mind, despite – or because of – all the positive comments. That cognitive and emotional dissonance seemed to contribute to a complicated grief process, if not at times to lead to some clinical depression. Psychotherapy was then necessary to process the ambivalence and anger left behind. This is not the legacy most of us want to leave to our loved ones, even if we die with our own unresolved feelings toward them. 

I don’t think – or really know for sure – that we ever hear our own eulogies. Does that matter? Perhaps. For one thing, we may not have realized or appreciated our own strengths and accomplishments enough. 

What, then, might writing our own eulogy add? It could be a mechanism to pull our lives together, to compare the life we led to the life we once had wished we would have. My Rabbi son, who does so many eulogies himself, once recommended to me a book that covers this challenge – Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life – by the English psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. Phillips points out that we can be haunted by a sense of falling short, and that we need to remove the idea that it is a failure of sorts not to meet our dreams. In a sense, we can spoil the life we have by downplaying its worth in comparison to the life we didn’t have. No one else can point out and close that gap as well as we can in our private deliberations. 

There are some ways to leave parts of a eulogy behind. One has been leaving what is called an ethical will. As valuable as that can be in conveying our values, it is more a matter of conveying our ideals, rather than who we are, or were. Our own eulogy can be more of a highlight – and lowlight – reel of our life, more akin to a mini-memoir. 

This personal eulogy is also not an end-of-life communication, although end-of-life wishes, including DNR orders, can be part of the process. This is especially important for those who end up with any degree of dementia. 

Let me take a practice run, then, while I can. I expect it will be subject to revision in the years remaining. Here, I’m using eulogy in the broadest sense, to include the gravestone, music, and maybe even some selected pictures. 

For my epitaph on a tombstone, how about “He Tried to Stay on the Ethical Way”? That is a reference to the publication I was most proud of, the book The Ethical Way: Challenges and Solutions for Managed Behavioral Healthcare. It also references how I increasingly tried to treat everybody, to convey respect and dignity to all with my moral compass. Even so, this epitaph is not enough, as it omits a comment on the most important person in my life, my wife Rusti. Maybe I need more time to make an adequate epitaph for her, if words are at all adequate enough. 

Next, I might mention some of the honors I received professionally. There was “Hero of Public Psychiatry” from the American Psychiatric Association. There was publicly being called “da man in ethics” and to “keep leading our leaders”. 

Uh-oh. Aren’t I following into the same trap, focusing on what sounds best, just what I was criticizing? 

To be critical, it’s easier to start with work. Even if I was a hero of any sort, I recently retired for my own emotional well-being, as well as to spend more time with my wife. Besides putting my personal needs first in retiring, I’m also sure that many others can remember when I strayed from the ethical way. 

The personal shortcomings are harder to point out. I should have called my parents more when I left home, and forgiven any lingering resentments. I was too mean to my wife early in our marriage. I spent time writing that may have been better spent with my two children. I didn’t value nearly enough the relationship with my younger sister until I aged. 

Before I get too sad, and to boost my spirits, let’s turn to some favorite music I would like sung or played at my funeral. I love jazz and my favorite piece is John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”. Maybe that should be the essence of the other part of my epitaph, say “A Love Supreme for All Who I Loved”. For my wife specifically, I propose Irving Berlin’s song “Always”. For my children, “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler on the Roof, which never fails to bring me to tears. Each of these songs can also be accompanied by an appropriate picture. 

Not to get too morbid, but I’ve even thought of what shirt I’d like to be buried in, especially if there is a coffin viewing. This is a shirt I only wear on my birthday. It has a Japanese print like a kimono. Both the design and my birthday, May 5, refer to the annual Children’s Day in Japan, where the happiness and health of children are honored. Being buried in this shirt will symbolically honor my children, grandchildren, and more, I hope. 

Surely, probably like almost everybody, all my dreams didn’t come true. But, more realistically, maybe what came true was more than I could have dreamed would really happen. Having said all of this, whatever anybody else would also like to add in a eulogy would now be fine with me. 

And you? Have you thought of what you would like said at your eulogy or written in your obituary? It can be therapeutic to at least think about it, or even to discuss with loved ones or a therapist. 

H. Steve Moffic, M.D., 67, retired from clinical practice at 66. He was fondly deemed a “psychiatric gadfly” by the Chair of the Department of Psychiatry where he first trained. His book The Ethical Way: Challenges and Solutions for Managed Behavioral Healthcare, published in 1997, was the first extended discussion of the ethics of managed mental health care.

11 Responses to “Writing your Own Eulogy”

  1. Herb

    Thank you again, Dr Moffic, for your openness and honesty which paves the way for us to challenge ourselves with similar transparency. If I can be so bold I would add one to yours: “He empowered his patients”.

    Reply
    • Steve Moffic

      Now that you’ve so thoughtfully mentioned it, Herb, maybe empowerment was a goal of mine for anyone I interacted with in more than a casual interaction: family, friends, classmates, and even bosses! Helping people to reach their potential is so very rewarding. Hopefully, I empowered myself, too.

      -Steve

      Reply
  2. William Houghton

    Sharply observed, Doctor Moffic! Doesn’t Erickson say that many of us do this in the final stage of life, forgive others and ourselves, take the frantic bustle of the world more lightly? Hearing one story leads to another—how did it happen that you picked that crazy shirt for you birthday and funeral? Thanks for a good show, Steve.

    Reply
    • Steve Moffic

      Ah, Erikson! Thank you for mentioning one of my literary and psychological mentors. If I am fulfilling some of that final stage, that is fulfilling.

      As to that shirt, a story of some serendipity. And doesn’t serendipity seem to have more meaning as we age? Once, when we were visiting the Fort Lauderdale area, we found out about a Japanese museum and garden. The fact that it was located there was too surprising to pass up the opportunity to take a long ride and visit it. This date was not too far away from my birthday. So, we get into this shop and see this beautifully printed shirt, but the price seemed way too high. Then, the proprietor explained the story of the fish and Children’s Day in Japan, the same day as my birthday. That made the shirt priceless. I have worn it every year since, maybe 20 times or so, and it still hasn’t been washed or cleaned! Afraid to spoil its pristine nature to me. But, someday, maybe on my death day, it should be washed.

      -Steve

      Reply
  3. Bill Swaim, M.D.

    Eulogies are always incomplete. Our lives are there for any, with interest or not, to observe. Usually, value judgements of all kinds follow. I believe in simplicity. My wife, MaryEllen and I spent our lives in the medical profession and we decided that we would add to our gravestone two words that would reflect our view of our lives here on earth and serve as a suggestion, for our family and interested others.
    “SERVANT LIVES”

    Reply
    • Steve Moffic

      Thank you for your cogent reply. In retrieving material for this blog, I ran across someone who wrote that the ultimate profession was “serving others”. Your suggestion certainly fits that and your lives.

      You are certainly right that eulogies remain incomplete, even many years afterwards. For me, I wanted to add my voice to that conversation. Besides, there is much research that indicates that mental and physical well-being improve some when people have the opportunities to tell their own stories of their lives. One common way to do so is a daily journal entry, for instance. So, maybe in telling my own story in the form of a eulogy, I was enhancing my own well-being while still alive. Though doing this was somewhat anxiety-provoking in its conception and completion, given its rarity and feeling that I was treading in the province usually of clergy, I do feel a sense of enhancement now that it is out there, and appreciation from the comments emerging.

      -Steve

      -Steve

      Reply
  4. Ronald Pies MD

    Many thanks for the thoughtful and honest essay, Steve! I must admit, I haven’t thought very much about my own eulogy, though I once thought it would be a hoot to have, “Here lies Pies” as my epitaph! Seriously, I think that what you have done in this piece is what your rabbi son might call, “heshbon ha-nefesh”. This is loosely translated as, “soul-searching”, “moral inventory”, or “ethical self-appraisal.”

    I think that in the process of contemplating our own eulogies, we are really engaging in such soul-searching, which is a good thing. And it provides a wonderful opportunity, as you have shown, to express gratitude.
    The 11th century Jewish philosopher, ibn Pakuda, wrote
    that “When men reach maturity, they foolishly ignore the benefits bestowed on them by the Creator…”*

    When you speak lovingly of your wife and children, Steve, you are clearly expressing gratitude, and that says a great deal about you. And we who know you are grateful you are still very much with us!

    L’chaim!

    Ron

    Ronald Pies MD

    *in: Birnbaum P, A Book of Jewish Concepts,1964, p. 235.

    Reply
  5. Steve Moffic

    Thank you for your most moving and insightful comment, Ron. Yes, maybe at the essence this process of writing one’s eulogy is a sort of soul searching at its best. As you imply, this process is probably worth doing for any sort of reason, only one of them “writing your own eulogy”.

    By the way, do you like pies? What kind?

    -Steve

    Reply
  6. Rhonda Hertwig, PNP

    As I near the end of my last few years as a health care provider(in pediatrics), I too am realizing I am in that stage of reflection. I appreciate your words of wisdom to help in this reflection – God knows I need it. We spend our lives racing through our careers only to find that we have entered the gates of soul searching. I thank you for your article on Robin Williams. Indeed sorrowful to live that private hell. I am looking forward to reading your book. I am just beginning to read “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” which is along those lines. I only had one son who endured the “ADHD thing” and it was quite the journey – he has now dropped out of college and living a a very mindful existence off the grid on the Big Island – he opened my eyes/soul to a life I should be embracing. Baby steps, but I am working on it! Namaste.

    Reply
  7. Steve Moffic

    Thank you, Rhonda, for that lovely greeting from India, Nameste. After visiting there, my wife and I tend to greet each other that way in the morning.

    Thank you, too, for mentioning my Robin Williams eulogy, which I recently did for Psychiatric Times, eliciting a record number of views and comments. If one is not registered there, it is easy enough to do. I also did a related one for Behavioral Healthcare.

    Mr. Williams did not live until 65, but perhaps dealt with the challenges of aging with mental illness(es).

    Steve

    Reply
  8. Steve Moffic

    Yesterday, I attended a military funeral and realized I forgot to request an important part of my own funeral. Joining the military after my psychiatric residency was one of the thee most important ethical decisions of my life (choosing that over conscientious objector or just taking a chance of being drafter during the Viet Nam) war. I’ve been so proud since to have done my little part.
    Please have a FULL military ceremony to go along with my Jewish one. The rifles will fire. Give the shells to my grandkids as symbols and transitional object of my life.

    Dr. Moffic

    Reply

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