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I spend Saturday mornings with a coffee in one hand and my newspaper’s death notices in the other. I have turned my obsession into an art, scanning for ink that lures with promises of quirks and vulnerabilities. Stuff that gets to the grit of a person, rather than the window-dressing of their professional titles.
Various shades of yellow newsprint in my “obit inspiration file” reveal that I have held this ritual for the better part of a decade. I give permanence to the most delicious details with a highlighter so that I can visit them again. Sometimes it’s a lesser-known hobby that catches my interest. Other times it’s an everyday act of love cleverly spun into a heroic tale. My favourites are the colourful examples that illuminate the tiny imperfections that make me want to invite the person for coffee.
All this from fewer words than an elementary school essay. What is it that makes me want to know these people? I have been asking myself the same question for a decade. Here are 10 lessons from the dead:
1. Ditch the ego and participate
“… [she] tolerated tennis for the sake of the company.” – Katherine Moulton Stevens (1917-2019)
Too often I say “no” to going mountain biking. I might hold others up, I might tire out before the ride is over, it might be too steep. It’s the lines from an obituary such as this that make me bench the ego and get on my bike.
2. Laugh at yourself often
“If you are reading this, I have passed my ‘best before date.’” – Shirley Chavarie (1935-2014)
The beauty of the autobiographical obit is that you get to take a jab at yourself. Self-effacing humour after you have died is a whole other level of good humour.
3. Be someone open to having fun
“They must have called one hell of a party in heaven for Lorna to decide to leave us on Sunday, February 4, 2018.” – Lorna Leslie Ellison (1914-2018)
The older I get the more I like to stay home. I have a long list of excuses stock-piled for the last-minute bail on almost anything social. Obits remind me that just showing up is often enough.
4. Give beyond your family and peers
“Jean’s heart was as big and deep as the ocean she grew up beside. Many times in the life of her family she provided shelter to her children’s friends who were alone and lost in the world.” – Barbara “Jean” Godden (1928-2016)
I think most of us can think of an adult who helped us in our childhood years, even if it was as simple as putting out an extra place for us at the dinner table. Life has a tendency to segregate us by age, stage of life, career choice, etc. We can foster friendship and meaning far beyond those walls.
5. Roll with it when life doesn’t go as planned
“While preparing sit-down Christmas dinners often of 20 or more, many a turkey caught fire in their home much to the delight of grandchildren and the unease of guests.” – Sascha Armour (1930-2017)
My mom often laments that it was a disaster when the power went out during a family reunion at her cottage one year. But playing Scrabble by candlelight and eating crackers with peanut butter for dinner is what made that reunion the one our kids remember most fondly.
6. Tell stories that define who you are, not what you are
“On her first night in Toronto, she went to the symphony in the pouring rain on a standing-room only ticket, this anecdote so evocative of her adventurous spirit, joyousness in the most most inclement of weather and passion for music.” – Ruby Steiger (1921-2016)
It’s not our education, our job titles or who we rub elbows with that make others want to know us better. Sometimes a single story speaks volumes of our character and what we value enough to take risks for. Take some time to remember your defining moments. Share them. Invite others to share theirs.
7. Strut the things that defy your stereotype
“She adored books on Charlemagne as well as Peanuts cartoons. She could recite lines from Shakespeare and Mel Brooks.” – Johanna Helfinger (1930-2019)
Daily life can be tedious, so we are intrigued by people who go against the grain. Johanna Helfinger worked tirelessly in a chocolate factory while memorizing Latin declensions and struggling through Tacitus and Pliny. Good luck stereotyping that.
8. Let others know your values, not just your interests
“He was a kind and gentle man and instilled in his children life values that would stand them in good stead for their futures, never imposing his will, instead suggesting a path to follow that would help them realize their goals.” – Robert John Weselake (1947-2016)
At different stages in our life we value different things in a friendship. We tend to stick with people who share similar values around life’s big responsibilities: career, marriage and parenting. When we share our values we give others something to grab on to.
9. Let others in on a little secret about yourself
“She had one unrealized dream – to be a journalist. On a recent move, her children discovered dozens of notebooks full of quotes and her thoughts on issues at the time.” – Pearl Yvonne Cathcart (1929-2019)
I’m not talking TMI (too much information) here. I’m talking about the small intimate details we stumble upon when we take the time to get to know others. We need to let people in – even if it’s just a little at a time – if we want them to invest in a relationship with us.
10. Be imperfect. It’s endearing
I just can’t get enough of the late Doris Mary Ross Sturdee (1923-2017). Read the following excerpts from her obituary and tell me you wouldn’t love to have her as a friend or at least have her along for a night on the Las Vegas strip.
“She was a constant source of giddy, spontaneous humour to all who knew her, and yet she could not tell a conventional joke to save her life. That was fine, because her frequent failed attempts at joke-telling were vastly funnier than the jokes she was trying to tell”
“She wrote everything down and then lost track of her notes.”
“She once spent an entire month wearing a strange pair of eyeglasses that, it would later turn out, she had salvaged from a parking lot.”
On Saturday mornings I welcome these people – and hundreds of others – into my home. I applaud the beauty they found in the routine, the value they placed on experiences that didn’t come with framed certificates and their ability to laugh at themselves. I’m pretty sure I’m a better person thanks to the people I’ve met after they died.
Tamara Vukusic lives in Kamloops, B.C.