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How to Live for Your Eulogy, Not Your Obituary

*This is a guest post written by Emily McDermott of Moms Overcoming Overwhelm.

What is your greatest fear?

According to Dr. Karl Albrecht, there are five fears that all humans share: fear of extinction (ceasing to exist), fear of mutilation (think spiders and snakes), loss of autonomy (physical and social restrictions), separation (abandonment, rejection, and loss), and ego-death (humiliation and shame).

I’m not a fan of spiders and you’ll never find me in an escape room. But ceasing to exist, which is at the base of Albrecht’s fear hierarchy which he calls a “feararchy”, doesn’t scare me. My greatest fear is burdening my loved ones after I die.

I don’t want to burden my husband with raising our boys on his own. I don’t want to burden anyone with figuring out what I “would have wanted.” And I definitely don’t want to burden anyone with my stuff. That is why I recently did my own Swedish death cleaning where I decided where I wanted my belongings to go as well as my funeral and cremation wishes.

The current global pandemic has revealed another fear in me: the fear of being unable to communicate with my loved ones right before I die. I’ve been deeply moved by stories of nurses on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic who hold the hands of people who are gasping for breath, people who ask them to say goodbye to the loved ones that they may never see again. I wonder what these people hold inside of them when they are no longer able to speak? Regrets of not living the life they wanted? Words of love of forgiveness never spoken?

Now, more than ever, I understand the importance of living a life I’m proud of, a life aligned with my values and without regrets, where the people I care about most know how fully they are loved. That’s why I’m living for my eulogy, not my obituary.

Obituary vs. Eulogy: What’s the Difference?

An obituary is a public resume of a life. It may include place of birth, education, work and volunteer commitments, military service, and a list of surviving family members. It is the end-of-life example of Americans’ favorite question, “What do you do?” Or in this case, “What did you do?”

If an obituary tells people that you lived, a eulogy tells them how well. The purpose of a eulogy is to share memories, stories, qualities, quirks, and characteristics of the deceased. How did the person impact others? What will be missed about them? What is their legacy?

American culture makes it easy to live for your obituary. In a world of transactional and surface-level relationships with “friends”, your obituary is like a LinkedIn profile combined with a Facebook profile picture. What did you do, who did you know, and who cares? Living for your eulogy, on the other hand, means living for intrinsic markers of success, such as meaningful relationships and fulfilling work that impacts others.

Writing Your Eulogy: A Powerful Exercise

Most of the time, a eulogy is written by a loved one after someone’s death. I have found, however, that writing your own eulogy is a powerful exercise in intentional living. By writing down what you want people to say about you at the end of your life, you are reverse engineering your current life so you can live in alignment with what is most important. To paraphrase Bronnie Ware, writing your eulogy can help you live a courageous life true to yourself, and not what others expect of you.

You don’t have to write from the perspective of your 90 year-old self. If you want to write it from a year or five years in the future, that’s perfectly fine. The exercise is not meant to depress you, but instead to help you deeply understand your values, desires, and goals so you can live in accordance with them. Not sure where to start? I’ve created a guide to writing your own eulogy here.

Three things I learned from writing my eulogy

I learned a few things about myself while going through this exercise:

1. What I do in the everyday, mundane moments impacts what my children will remember about me. 

I’m cognizant that my small, seemingly unimportant daily actions impact the legacy that I leave behind to my children. Will they remember that I made them pancakes on Saturdays? Perhaps. But I want them to remember how they felt listening to a special pancake party song while they poured the milk and mixed the batter. Will they remember vacations? Probably. But I’m more interested in what they remember within the walls of our home. Did they feel loved? Were they seen and heard? Did I encourage them and build them up? These are the things that they will remember about their mother. 

2. If a value I claim to have is purely aspirational, I need to develop habits to incorporate that value into my current life.

When writing your eulogy, you will likely include the things you value. For me, love for God and family are most important. But how am I supporting these values in my daily life? It’s one thing to say I went to church. It’s another to show how I served others in my community and how I spent time each morning in reflection and prayer. I can say that I was a devoted wife, mother, sister, and friend. But how many times am I more concerned about being “caught up” on Instagram than I am with my own brother? No one wants to see “She scrolled” on her tombstone.

If your eulogy doesn’t feel truthful, develop the habits to incorporate your desired values into your daily life. Set up a weekly phone date with a friend. Write down an encouraging verse or quote every day and reflect on it for 5 minutes. Write your eulogy again after you’ve incorporated habits that support your health and relationships and see how it changes.

3. Recognizing the gap between what I want to be said about me after I die and the story I’m telling myself now is an opportunity for change.

What is the story you’re telling yourself? That you’re not good enough? That you can’t do what your heart is leading you to because you’re too old, too young, not educated enough, too experienced? You don’t have time, or money, or resources to make it happen? What if the only thing standing between you and your goals was the story you tell yourself?

As someone who tries to walk the walk of intentional living, you would think that I’d have an excuse-proof mindset about reaching my goals. But I tell myself limiting stories all the time. I don’t have enough time, I don’t know how to start a business, no one will care about what I have to offer. But there is another, stronger voice in my spirit that tells me that I am needed and that I have something to contribute. That there is an overwhelmed mom out there who can be impacted by something I can create. Writing your eulogy gives you the opportunity to understand the impact that you want to have in this world and find a way to make that impact happen. 

How Do You Want to Be Remembered?

Living for your eulogy is your spouse hugging you after you admit that parenting was just too hard today. It’s a coffee date with a friend where you truly listen and don’t even think about your phone. It’s the light in your eyes when you have a dance party with your kids. It’s showing up for yourself and others in a way that is unique in today’s world. In uncertain times, it’s a lighthouse in the sea of distraction and chaos, guiding you to the person you most want to be.  

Living for your eulogy today will change how you are remembered tomorrow. How do you want to be remembered?

Emily McDermott is an Air Force wife and mom to two energetic boys living in Fairfax, Virginia. She is also the host of the top 1.5% globally ranked podcast Moms Overcoming Overwhelm where she helps moms declutter their homes, heads, and hearts. As a virtual and in-person decluttering coach, she works with moms one-on-one to define what matters, eliminate what doesn’t and automate the rest. Emily enjoyswriting custom poetry, dancing, and eating peanut butter out of the jar.

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