My grandmother is still with us, but her health continues to worsen. She’s had some OK days, but the last couple of days have brought a more significant decline. I’m starting to expect the phone to ring any minute. I’ve constructed ways to detach myself from that inevitable moment. I realize I’m pretty good at walling things off. When I drop those defenses, I start to lose it. I guess I’m the kind of person who has to grieve a bit at a time.
Between scrambling to finish work projects that have about sent me over the edge to dealing with snow and snow days (and the resulting craziness that comes from everyone being off schedule), I’ve had plenty of opportunities to wrap myself in other things. Even when life is really busy, I normally still try to write or read something or reflect about life or do something that grounds me. Now all I want to do is zone out and forget about the clouds hanging over us.
I’ve assumed the responsibility of writing my grandmother’s obituary and funeral bulletin. Writing usually comes easy to me. This feels more like climbing Mount Everest. I stare at the blank screen and feel paralyzed, but I know if I wait until after, I won’t be able to do it at all. I try to do the less emotional parts like listing surviving relatives just to make some progress. When I get into more complicated details like colors and pictures and design, my brain just shuts down. It’s taken me days just to be able to sit down and write a blog post.
The most important part to me is that I don’t want to write some dry account of her life. It’s not like we get to publish a small novel in the paper, but it needs to say something worthy of her. In addition to the factual details that go into obituaries and funeral bulletins, you do get room for a paragraph or two to summarize someone’s life. But this is not just any someone; this is the someone who has kept all the mismatched parts of our lives woven together since the day we were born.
A year or two ago, somebody turned the idea of six-word stories into a popular phenomenon. The idea is to try to tell an entire story in six words. It sounds impossible, but I’ve read some fantastic ones. (Samples here via Wired and here at the Six Word Stories site) Then came the natural extension of that – six-word memoirs. (the Smith Magazine project and illustrated ones at NPR) The suggestion I read: write the six-word story of the person’s life and let that guide how you write their obituary.
This certainly isn’t easy either, but there is something more focused and less daunting about it. You can’t encapsulate an entire life this way, of course, especially not one full of rich stories that touches countless people. It does, though, let you capture one particular theme or characteristic or truth about someone that can speak to the whole of their lives. In a world full of words and noise, perhaps this is the path to speaking simply and clearly to what’s most essential and fundamental about someone and what they stood for.
So while I sit down this evening to reflect on that for my grandmother, I encourage you to try it out for yourself and your kids. Thinking about your life, what would your six-word story be? What would it be for your kids? What about just something that happened today? What about six words about autism?