“There comes a time in life when it’s time to stop writing your résumé and begin to write your obituary.” I’m not sure who first coined that line, but there’s wisdom in it.
What’s the difference between a résumé and an obituary? Well, the former details your achievements, the latter expresses how you want to be remembered and what kind of oxygen and blessing you want to leave behind. But how exactly do you write an obituary so that it’s not, in effect, just another version of your resume? Here’s a suggestion.
There’s a custom in Judaism where as an adult you make out a spiritual will each year. Originally, this will was more in line with the type of will we typically make, where the focus is on burial instructions, on who gets what when we die, and on how to tie up the unfinished details of our lives legally and practically.
Through time, however, this evolved so that today this will focuses more on a review of your life, the highlighting of what’s been most precious in your life, the honest expression of regrets and apologies, and the blessing, by name, of those persons to whom you want to say a special goodbye. The will is reviewed and renewed each year so that it is always current, and it’s read aloud at your funeral as the final words you want to leave behind for your loved ones.
This can be a very helpful exercise for each of us to do, except that such a will is not done in a lawyer’s office, but in prayer, perhaps with a spiritual director, a counsellor, or a confessor helping us. Very practically, what might go into a spiritual will of this sort?
If you are looking for help in doing this, I recommend the work and the writings of Richard Groves, the co-founder of the Sacred Art of Living Center. He has been working in the field of end-of-life spirituality for more than 30 years and offers some very helpful guidance vis-à-vis creating a spiritual will and renewing it regularly. It focuses on three questions.
First: What, in life, did God want me to do? Did I do it? All of us have some sense of having a vocation, of having a purpose for being in this world, of having been given some tasks to fulfill in life. Perhaps we might only be dimly aware of this, but, at some level of soul, all of us sense a certain duty and purpose. The first task in a spiritual will is to try to come to grips with that. What did God want me to do in this life? How well or poorly have I been doing it?
Second: To whom do I need to say, “I’m sorry”? What are my regrets? Just as others have hurt us, we have hurt others. Unless we die very young, all of us have made mistakes, hurt others, and done things we regret. A spiritual will is meant to address this with searing honesty and deep contrition. We are never more big-hearted, noble, prayerful, and deserving of respect than when we are down on our knees sincerely recognizing our weaknesses, apologizing, asking where we need to make amends.
Third: Who, very specifically, by name, do I want to bless before I die and gift with some special oxygen? We are most like God (infusing divine energy into life) when we are admiring others, affirming them, and offering them whatever we can from our own lives as a help to them in theirs.
Our task is to do this for everyone, but we cannot do this for everyone, individually, by name. In a spiritual will, we are given the chance to name those people we most want to bless. When the prophet Elijah was dying, his servant, Elisha, begged him to leave him “a double portion” of his spirit. When we die, we’re meant to leave our spirit behind as sustenance for everyone; but there are some people, whom we want to name, to whom we want to leave a double portion. In this will, we name those people.
In a wonderfully challenging book, “The Four Things That Matter Most” (Atria Books, $26), by Ira Byock, a medical doctor who works with the dying, submits that there are four things we need to say to our loved ones before we die: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”
He’s right; but, given the contingencies, tensions, wounds, heartaches, and ups and downs within our relationships, even with those we love dearly, it isn’t always easy (or sometimes even existentially possible) to say those words clearly, without any equivocation. A spiritual will gives us the chance to say them from a place that we can create, which is beyond the tensions that generally cloud our relationships and prevent us from speaking clearly, so that at our funeral, after the eulogy, we will have no unfinished business with those we have left behind.