The new year brings a clean slate and with that comes a new outlook on how to fill that slate. As with everything in our fast-moving, quick-change world, anything related to death, dying, obituaries and grieving is up for updates, nontraditional approaches and ways of dealing with all the emotions that come with loss.
Children born out of wedlock
Last fall, I received a call from a family in the Midwest struggling with their dad’s obituary. It seems he had fathered a child in the midst of raising his family; sometime before his death, he and the son connected and he was introduced to – and accepted by – his half brothers. The dilemma came about because even though the dad had come clean with his family, he had not revealed it to friends or his church. So how to handle the newly accepted son in the obituary?
The family didn’t want to leave him out; he was, after all, a blood relative. But they also didn’t want to create shock and gossip during this time of grief. Ultimately they decided the feelings of their half brother, very much alive, were consideration enough to include him in the obituary. And they did, knowing their dad most likely would be proud of the way everyone handled the situation.
In other obituaries I have seen or written, children who were born out of wedlock (not so unusual these days) have been acknowledged and listed with survivors. Occasionally the adoptive parents are mentioned by name, too. It all seems to bring a poignant sigh of relief and sense of a happy ending.
Partners and HIV-AIDS
With the growing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships, there is more openness in acknowledging same-sex partners or spouses in obituaries. In years past, when gay men died of AIDS, it was often disguised as cancer or pneumonia or another more socially acceptable cause of death. Now, though the deaths are less frequent, the disease itself is mentioned. And most often so are gay partners of men and women.
I have seen several obituaries for children that have mentioned “two moms” or “two dads” as survivors.
I remember the first time I saw “He was a friend of Bill W.” in an obituary. The deceased was an acquaintance of mine, not a close friend, and I was surprised to learn through the death notice that he had been an alcoholic decades in recovery. Bill Wilson was one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935, and because that organization was built on and sustained by anonymity, addictions were rarely discussed. Now, however, it is not at all unusual to read that someone has been “in recovery” or “was a longtime member of AA.”
Distressingly, as drugs have also become more prevalent in our society, it is becoming too common to find obituaries for teenagers and young adults who have “died suddenly” only to read at the bottom that a donation to an addiction center or organization has been suggested by the family.
There was a time when mental diseases – bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia and others – were just never talked about. And if someone’s death was related to a despondent mental state, it was generally omitted; no cause of death was given. “Died suddenly” was often how it was stated and left the death open to speculation. More and more often now, family members are opening up about the real cause of death and are mentioning it in obituaries, hoping it might be helpful to another family. There might be a reference to a suicide counseling center the family has selected for donations, such as, “In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.” Occasionally, the person’s “struggle with depression” or “fight with demons” will be mentioned outright. One Virginia family, noting the death of their son, simply wrote: “He succumbed to a quiet, insidious disease: bi-polar disorder.”
Illicit Love Affairs
A New York Times Magazine column on ethics recently included a question from a man who had promised his dying friend he would make sure his mistress attended the funeral. After the friend died, however, he worried about the impact on the widow and family (“The Ethicist,” Chuck Klosterman: The Mistress at the Funeral, Jan. 19, 2014). That might be one of the more unusual dilemmas, but I have personally seen instances where a former girlfriend not only attended the funeral for her then-engaged man, but also was mentioned fondly in his obituary.
Just because someone has died doesn’t mean all previous relationships should be axed out of a life to remember. Increasingly, former wives and husbands are acknowledged among the survivors, sometimes even warmly, as “the mother or father” of the children.
And why not? Just because someone has died shouldn’t mean having to re-write history. It might also be a good time to come clean and offer up a mea culpa if it’s appropriate.
A Salt Lake City man who wrote his obituary before dying admitted to faking his resume and stealing a safe decades earlier. He even accepted the responsibility for the throat cancer that killed him. “I felt invincible when young and smoked cigarettes when I knew they were bad for me,” he wrote. “Now, to make it worse, I have robbed my beloved Mary Jane of a decade or more of the two of us growing old together and laughing at all the thousands of simple things that we have come to enjoy and fill our lives with…” It’s just possible that someone reading that – and obituaries mentioning other formerly taboo topics – will be inspired to learn from it.
Susan Soper is the founder and author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she was formerly the Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief" shortly after her father died. Susan lives in Atlanta with her husband. More info on Facebook and at www.obitkit.com.
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