The night before my 40-year-old husband’s funeral I Googled “how to write a eulogy.” I’d never heard someone deliver a eulogy and I’d certainly never written one. In high school, college, and law school, I’d learned persuasive writing and informative writing. I’d learned to write for consumers and judges, but I’d never learned how to write words that would give closure to hundreds of friends and family, to two little children who were trying to understand the permanence of death, to myself.
Twenty minutes after beginning my Google search, I had my eulogy: a short summary of his battle against brain cancer, a few sentimental notes about all the things that made him into the person he was, and a few words in closing.
As I printed out the single sheet of remarks, I knew I’d missed too many details. About the day we met and the heart-fluttering first dates. About our relationship and the way we were always laughing, in every memory. About his diagnosis and his illness, the highs and the lows and bravery he showed every day that he fought a relentless disease. About his last days, his last breath, and his last words that weren’t. About him. I’d written something but had somehow still missed all the details about him.
He deserved better—something life-sized and memorable and stunning.
After the funeral, the friends and family who’d come to pay their respects told me what I said was beautiful. I nodded, but I knew that what I said wasn’t enough. There was no closure to be found as I stepped away from the podium and held my two children close and followed a coffin down an aisle. I accepted that maybe there would never be closure, that maybe this feeling—that I hadn’t said all the words I wanted to say—would plague me for the rest of my life. Maybe I had to begin to understand that life doesn’t always give you the happy ending: young husbands die, young children have their hearts broken, and the words and stories that need to be told remain locked away.
Weeks later, on a sunny March afternoon at lunch with a friend, surrounded by so much normal—chatter and easy laughter and hearts that didn’t seem to carry the heaviness mine did, my mind kept returning to our story. I could think only of where we—my husband and I—had been just one year prior on that same March day: desperately searching our options after learning the tumor in his brain had returned despite six weeks of radiation and six months of chemotherapy. Just one year prior, our world had been turned upside down a second time when the doctor had said my husband hadn’t responded to the standard of care for glioblastoma patients; he hadn’t defied the numbers as we’d hoped. At that lunch on that March day, weeks after I became a young widow, I sat across from my friend and talked about the kids, while in my mind, the story of one year ago today played like a movie reel across the backs of my eyes.
All I could think that afternoon was that if I’d done better at the eulogy, she would know. She would know that in a few days, the story that I would see in my mind’s eye would be that of the day we made first contact with the team at Duke University, and days after would be the story of learning the esteemed neuro-oncologists at Duke had agreed to let my husband into the poliovirus trial—the trial that had been featured on CBS news, that had been called a miracle.
If I’d done better at the eulogy, she would know how high our hopes had been one year ago today, how terrified we’d been at the same time.
If I’d done a better job, it wouldn’t feel like I was being suffocated by our story, which took up too much of my mental space and every inch of my emotional breadth; I wouldn’t feel trapped in the past.
I started writing that night and posting the story of our year to a blog. Looking through photos and text messages from the same day a year prior, I wrote what we said and did, how we felt as we let our hearts hope for a miracle. The next day, I did the same, contrasting the present with the past. As I wrote each day, as I allowed myself to remember conversations and feelings and pull them from my mind to unleash on the paper, the story became lighter to carry. It was as if once the story of the day had been put onto paper, with details and blunt truths and regrets that were awaiting forgiveness, the story stopped weighing me down, the movie reel quieted. And as an audience for my story grew, the burden began to ease. It was selfish to the nth degree—asking others to bear the burden of our heaviest days so I didn’t have to bear it alone—but I allowed it anyway. Maybe grief is a selfish time. Maybe that’s okay.
It wasn’t until nearly the end when I realized what I was truly doing by telling my husband’s story, giving significance to the word “brave,” giving meaning to the word “strong,” giving life to a man who’d been so full of life that words like “charming and funny and kind” didn’t do him justice without the everyday examples that accompanied those words. I was writing the eulogy he deserved.
I was writing about the day we met and the heart-fluttering first dates. About our relationship and the way we were always laughing, in every memory. About his diagnosis and his illness and the highs and the lows and the bravery he showed every day. About his last days, his last breath, his last words that weren’t. About him. I was writing the life-sized memorial he deserved.
The blog finished at more than 160,000 words. I wrote consistently for 320 days without fail. My husband’s eulogy was read by more than 16,000 strangers and even gave a few of them a reason to feel not so alone as they or someone they loved fought their own battles.
The morning after the last post, the story of our year—the battles and challenges and triumphs—didn’t restart. The movie reel didn’t begin to play from the beginning. The past didn’t grab hold and tear me away from the present.
It wasn’t closure. It wasn’t a happy ending. But suddenly, now, there was space to breathe. And maybe, in grief, that’s all you need.