Chapter 7

Autobiography and Life Story

Simple or elaborate, there are a variety of ways to remember and honor your loved one in a personal and meaningful way. As time goes on, we may fear that our memories of them will fade away. This is when photos and videos become even more precious, offering a lasting connection to that special person. How do you wish to remember your loved one?  Or, if you are planning your own remembrance service, how do you wish to be remembered?

Pictures or a video give the opportunity to reflect on a unique individual and remember the difference they made in your life. Either can be a moving way to pay tribute to your loved one. 

The stories of family vacations, holidays celebrated, and favorite pastimes help us remember the person as we begin to wrestle with our grief and the realization that they’re no longer with us. 

This can also be a community-building exercise. Inviting family and friends to submit photos and video clips of the person brings people together, uniting everyone in the task. 

A Video

Whether it’s a retrospective video, highlighting the milestones in the person’s life, or simply a collection of favorite moments, there’s truly no right or wrong way to make this type of video.

  • The video can consist of 35 to 50 pictures matched with the length of the chosen song, usually about three to five minutes. 
  • Decide on a theme, select background music, and gather together photos. 
  • You can do it yourself or there are some super quick services advertised on the web. 
  • The video can also be played during the gathering and family visitation or as part of the service or after-reception. 
  • Make copies to share with family and friends.

A Storyboard

 

If the creation of a video is too much for you to deal with, consider making a picture storyboard or story-clothesline. All you need are individual photos.

  • Contributors can give them to you beforehand or bring them to the service or celebration and place them on the prepared storyboard or clothes line.  This enables everyone to actively participate and be a part of creating the event. 
  • A storyboard is a mounted piece of cardboard with tape or plastic tac at hand for the photos to be placed. 
  • Another idea is to hang a rope clothesline and allow people to use the provided clothespins to hang their photos. 

Life story can also be made personal by reading some writings of the decease’s including their blog or Facebook entries. If they had a podcast, why not play a 3-minute portion where their personality shines through?  A poem from their own hand is perfect.  

Remembrances from Family and Friends

Once the more formal speech or eulogy, and perhaps a video is shown, I like to open the floor for others to share. With the family’s permission, I include what I call “structured spontaneity”. By “spontaneity” I do not mean a free-for-all. Instead, it is a structured planned time within the service. The facilitator or officiant remains in control as individuals share memories and thoughts in a befitting way.  

Poignant and funny stories are shared. People reminisce and storytelling becomes paramount. If you have invited attendees to bring photos or an object for the Memory Table, this is a time for them to relay the story that goes with the item.  

If the gathering is informal, with mingling and conversation, the family can gather the attention of the attendees and invite tributes from those who wish to speak. I find, whatever the setting, the less formal the introduction to this time, the more people will openly share from the heart. And, if they are given a heads up and a helpful prompt, more will be eager to participate.  

One way of not springing it on them is to announce at the beginning of the service that there will be an opportunity to share later in the service. At my uncle’s funeral I passed a basket of 1 x 2 inch wooden blocks and felt markers and invited each person to write a word that described him or their relationship to him. The blocks were inscribed with the words “love,” “fun,” “super dad,” and “party down”.  When the designated time came, I invited them to hold the block in their hand and to share the word and perhaps a bit about what it meant to them. Some simply read what they had written. Others shared endearing stories and funny incidents.  

After sharing, or not, they were invited to place the block in the toolbox that Uncle Ken, as an avid woodworker, had built. His children and grandchildren cherish the filled toolbox.

In the time of remembrance you and those gathered will recall special qualities about the deceased. Hopefully they will enhance the existing emotional and spiritual connections between the person who died and the living, thereby focusing and increasing a listener's appreciation of the life lost.

Sometimes volunteer participants will want to share a poem or other reading as a tribute. This too is appropriate and welcomed. Otherwise, or as an additional piece, you can insert a poem, prayer or reading into the service. The chapter on readings and poems contains a number of selections to enhance this time.

Another way to aid people to share is to ask them to close their eyes and recall their memories. Here is a script you can adapt for use.

“I invite you to take a moment right now, close your eyes, and picture [Name].  (Pause.)

Think about them and the relationship you had with them. (Pause.)

Where did you first meet [Name]? (Pause.)

What is one of your earliest or most special memories? (Pause.)

What things did you do together? (Pause.)

Can you remember any particularly humorous or touching memories you might like to share? (Pause.)

What will you miss about [Name] the most? (Pause.) 

When you are ready simply open your eyes and return to the room.(Pause until everyone seem ready to resume.)

Is there anyone who would like to share their thoughts?” (Pause and wait.)

Don’t be afraid of silences if there are gaps between your invitation and those speaking or between speakers. Just give a prompt, then if needed, repeat the prompt, and wait. Think of the quiet as a normal and important part of the flow of the service. Even if no one speaks, it is an important time of reflection. Be content, relaxed and at ease in the silence and others will find comfort too. Temporary silence is a normal part of the rhythm of the service. Help those attending to see it as an opportunity to reflect, gather their thoughts, and prepare for what is coming. Some may choke and draw a blank during what is for them an unfamiliar social situation. They may have many thoughts, but become stuck in their heads. Others are too busy coming up with something “interesting” to say rather than being present in the moment. 

In these cases you could add the following phrase of encouragement.  

“Don’t try to conjure up the perfect words. Simply allow the words to find you.”

So, give the group the time they need. If you come off fidgety and stare like a deer in headlights, they may feel these nervous emotions themselves. Take a breath, let your shoulders drop (instead of tensing up), and smile confidently. If you look calm and collected, they too will feel at ease. 

Remember these pointers and you can eliminate your fear of silent moments and embrace them to your advantage. They can be a great tool to open up conversation and connect even deeper with those gathered. Remember that silence really is golden.

Write Your Own Story

If you are looking to write your own life story, now is the time to do it. The conversations we have with our family and close friends are usually geared towards what is happening that week, how we’re doing and how they’re doing. Rarely do we get into deep conversations about our lives, experiences or perspectives. As the weeks, months and years go flying by, we miss opportunities to talk about real things -- important things -- with those closest to us. There are things that only we can answer or explain. Sadly, if we don’t share them now, many of those answers, explanations and stories may be missed.

Popularity is growing for elder individuals, grandmothers and grandfather to write their memoir to pass onto later generations. There are a number of resources, both online and in print, to guide you. These do-it-yourself books help the reader record and preserve the memories of their lifetime. Many cover one’s birth to the present, with emphasis most often on positive remembrances. 

Since your purpose in writing is to record your memories, and not necessarily to give an accurate historically account, I prefer to call it a memoir instead of a biography. A lot of our memories are just that, our memories. The phrases or questions will prompt you to write about pivotal experiences in your life, important people in your transformation, what you’ve learned, and principles you live by. 

Here are some sample phrases to get you started. These are lifted from my book,This Is My Life: a memoir in your own words, available at www.spiritworks.org. The text is laid out into early, middle and later years and holds over fifty prompts to guide you through such subjects as family and faith, learnings and education, work and responsibilities, and the world around you.

This is how I remember my mother and father…

When I was a child, during summer vacations, I would… 

My best childhood friends were…

My biggest adventure in life was when…

The most meaningful things I have accomplished in my life are…

If I had to pick three of my all-time favorite songs, they would be…

My favorite holiday is…

The funniest family story I remember is…

A most sad or difficult time in my life was…

Three words that describe me are…

My best piece of advice to the next generation is…

When writing, the more honest and revelatory the better. Yet, secrets are usually secrets for a reason. This memoir does not have to be a tell-all book. Share in writing at your own comfort level, knowing others may read what you pen. To choose to share your writings you may wish to change names, places and dates to keep identities to yourself, but still record something difficult that happened to you. Telling your story is important, but you don’t want to throw anyone under the bus. The aim of choosing to share is to lead to a better overall relationship. My overall rule is, “Be kind”.  

 

Perhaps you’ll write about things others would not have known. Your closest friends may know brush strokes about your past, but may not know specifics about some of your most defining moments. Your pages will help you better understand what makes you tick, and might help you understand a little more why you are the way you are. From writing about your childhood experiences to finding out why you wanted to be a parent, to figuring out how you developed your attitudes about love, money or work, answering some key questions can really help start some amazing insights for yourself and conversations with others. You may find yourself with newfound awareness, realizing that these are stories you might have shared long ago. Sharing your memoir can evolve into a deeper discussion, such as your biggest regret or life lesson.  

So why waste time? Why not write down, record on your smart phone, or dictate to someone taking notes, memories that explain events that shaped you, decisions you made and important lessons you learned? Do it now. Record your thoughts, and perhaps share your memoir with others. What a wonderful gift of yourself to yourself and those you love.