How to Capture a Life in 400 Words

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The Obituary

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Writing an obiturary is a sobering task.

I’m not sure if it is harder to write one for someone you know, because I haven’t had to do that. My husband wrote his parents’ obituaries and my father had written his own, bless him.

Last weekend I wrote an obituary for my friend’s mother who I had never met. I sent my friend an Email asking for details and a couple open-ended suggestions. Share anything, what you love about your mom, key points in her life. What grandkids love about grandma. 

We talked on the phone. Or, she talked and I listened, prompting her in the lulls, supporting her. With half an hour of information and pages of random thoughts, I set out to understand two things. (1) How to structure the obituary and (2) what kind of person she was / what kind of life she lived.

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STRUCTURE OF THE OBITUARY

This was straightforward. I sat in the TreeHouse on my loveseat and the service was three days away. It was late, but I wanted to write this for my friend because she dreaded doing it.

I wanted to get it right, or as right as I could. I copied photos posted online. I read the comments on Facebook about her passing. And the mother began to take on a dimension as a physical and emotional being. With pictures on my screen, I could see her smile, her gentle presence.

The structure began with legal name, age, dates and place of birth and death. Then survivors were listed by name and last was information about the services. The outline was done; I was done. I sent this to my friend to review.

Typical obituaries run 200 to 450 words, roughly a quarter to a half of a news column. How to capture a life in such a space? I would sleep on it.

In bed, I let the images and stories and comments drift around in my head. I shut my eyes and tried to see this woman, to have a tiny sense of her.

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THE PERSON AND THE LIFE

Obituaries are ready to print for notables. For Pope Benedict XVI or Barbara Walters they are prepared and ready, with reams of articles and photos available. Private people, not so. Getting the person right meant grasping the sweep of her 85 years, distilling the essential detail and description that would ring true. I knew my friend and her family, and had met friends.

The people in one’s life were important. The jobs, the places lived, the challenges, the routines… these shape you, as the weather and soil and light shape a tree.

The mother devoted her life to family: her husband, daughters, grandchildren. But who was she? If a life is defined by deeds and temperament, then finding the WHO was like putting a funnel to a water fall.

In bed that night, the stories and my questions blurred with those of my life and my mother, who is thankfully alive. How would I describe my mother in a few lines, what are the words?

I see with my eyes and I am trying on the eyes of my friend, of her children, of those who wrote comments such as this: “A piece of me has passed too. I loved your mom so much.”

I woke late in the night and turned, positioning my head on the pillow, its memory-foam, cooling the rush. I sifted through the flow of thoughts, panning for nuggets: 64 year marriage, highschool sweetheart, first plane trip, immigrant parents, a hill-top town. In the morning, I wrote about her courtship in the garden, the family home, the devotion.

The story my friend told me when her mother held on for the family, an extraordinary length of time. Her strength. I finished the draft and sent it along.

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WRITING AS A GIFT

Sometimes the best writing is the writing you give. My friend said she did not have words because she was crying. A masterpiece.

The best validation one could have from writing. To get something right. To touch the heart of another.

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Jan 14, 2023

4 Comments

  1. jayne benton

    Yes, all true. You captured my mom with dignity and grace at a time I had no words. I will be forever grateful for your god given skill and your heart .Love you friend

    Reply
    • mylinhshattan

      You are in my thoughts and prayers in this most difficult time. And what an honor to help and learn about your family history and this special woman.

      Reply
  2. Mark Steele

    It sounds like you did (another) amazing thing MyLinh! And you’ve provide some food for thought for those not personally involved in this story. After all, in the broader sense, this is one story in which we are all guaranteed characters. Memento mori! Thank you.

    Reply
    • mylinhshattan

      True. Writing this made me think about my own mother and the kind of daughter I wish to be. But such is the case with any relationships; there are a fixed number of interactions. Thank you for takng the time to share, Mark.

      Reply

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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