Family Matters

The Last Word

The difficulties of summing up a lifetime

The Last Word

This article first appeared in the July/August 2007 issue.

Looking back, I wish I’d been more aware and more gracious. When my brother and I agreed that I’d deliver a eulogy upon our mother’s death, I was confronted with many emotions. With the wisdom of hindsight, I wonder whether I should have known better than to commit to such a delicate and thankless task. I now realize that both filial and fraternal pridefulness drove me to concoct the presentation I made on that warm Virginia day back in July 2002.

As my mother’s eldest son, I grew up in a privileged position. Actually, it was more entitled than privileged. The movie Prince of Tides comes to mind when I think of my position in the family. Similar to the boys in that twisted tale of maternal duplicity, my brothers and I were successively downgraded as the years went by.

My two sisters suffered in comparison to us, even with our diminished status. As a therapist, I came to understand that this spiral was more a reflection of my mother’s separation difficulties than our own. But the impact was still strong and enduring. Our mother was complicated. She was clever and witty, but she was also fiery, melodramatic, and accustomed to center stage. I wanted to do her justice in the eulogy, but there were other, less conscious, motives at play.

How does one say goodbye to his mother? How is anyone supposed to deliver a truthful eulogy? Does truth even enter into it? These complicated questions occupy me even now. But at the time of my mother’s death, my goals felt straightforward. I’d simply incorporate my thoughts and feelings with those of my siblings and let fly. But there was so much more. There was my divorce 10 years before and the relationship my mother had maintained with my ex-wife. There was the warning from both brothers against bringing my fiancee to the funeral since my ex-wife was certain to attend. There was the legacy of the lifelong triangulation which my mother had employed to keep each of her children continually guessing about the true motives of the others. And there was my brash belief as both the big brother and the wise therapist that somehow I knew best what grieving should entail. How wrong could I be!

My specialty over the years as a clinical social worker has involved the treatment of male offenders, a reflection no doubt of trying to repair some of the harm my deceased father caused our family. He was a hard-driving and often abusive man, who suffered abuse at the hands of his Prussian mother. I was his whipping boy. Aware of some of the motives for taking on the type of work I’ve chosen, I can endorse the claim that all psychotherapy is grief work, and that all healing is about recovery. My deepest motive, therefore, was to use the eulogy as a form of healing for myself and my siblings—to help us recover from both our parents’ shortcomings. My intent may have been honorable, but the execution was a miserable failure.

After writing several false starts, I composed a two-page transcript. My intention was to be real by painting a balanced picture of the complicated person who was our mother. I wanted to show both sides of her, as if there were only two sides with which to contend. My hope was to do so in a loving and understanding way. My thinking about the grieving process was naively simple.

I believed then that to grieve about people, we must be able to see them, remember them, and love them as they were: the good and the bad, the lovable and the less so. So I crafted an opening that began, “I loved my mother deeply, and sometimes, truth be told, I didn’t like her much at all. My relationship with her was complex, messy, and forever. She shaped so much of who I became and much of who I’ve had to fight all my life to escape.”

I continued unfazed with several memorable, if controversial anecdotes, drawn primarily from my own interactions with her over the years. I wrapped it up by calling down my mother’s blessings on those of us who remained behind. My goal was to portray a woman I loved, but never truly understood or felt accepted by. Unfortunately, it was a truth which I projected unwittingly upon my unsuspecting siblings as well.

As I stood there, voicing this remembrance at graveside, I read very carefully, pausing for effect when it felt timely to enhance my delivery. Slowly, I registered several things. First, I felt nothing, just complete emptiness. The audience—my sisters, brothers, my three grown children, their mother, my nephews, and the other witnesses—stood stunned. Despite the summer warmth, I felt chilled. My eyes saw, even as my mouth was uttering the closing lines, that not only had I missed the mark entirely, I’d managed to upset many of the people in attendance.

The initial denial or shock that come with the territory of grief were part of my experience. But my heart’s concern was for those around me. I felt guilty for not being more responsible. I tasted the sudden bite of remorse for not delivering the goods anticipated, for not tendering the laudatory exaltations usually associated with eulogies. But the deed was done, the harm inflicted.

In attempting to reconcile what happened that day, I ask myself: is a eulogy part of grieving? Not necessarily. Is brutal honesty integral to remarks about the deceased? Perhaps not. A eulogy may be more for the mourners than the mourned. It’s a time to proclaim the best that the deceased had to offer. A time, perhaps, to inspire the mourners to emulate those esteemed qualities of the mourned’s higher self. It’s a time to be ultimately and finally positive.

The long, multidimensional journey that begins after the eulogy is the one I’m on now. My eulogy to my mother pushed the mourners to a place where they were neither prepared nor willing to go. That eulogy was ultimately more about my mother as I saw her. And as my youngest brother told me later, I’d been selfish, not generous, more petty than noble, more callous than inspiring. Those few moments of graveside tribute were an opportunity lost, rather than a sense of peace gained.

I don’t know if I can ever fully make amends to my family. The higher side of my mother included a deeply held devotion to her God and, in her own unique way, to her children and grandchildren. I trust that the higher side of her will forgive me. I’m burdened with a certain myopia and an edgy stubbornness when it comes to speaking what I called then “my truth.”

So it’s a good bet that in my quest for what’s right, I’m doomed sometimes to be miserably wrong. But I’ve learned that grieving the departed will always elicit startling feelings and strange behaviors. And when it comes to eulogizing your mother, it may be less about truth than about timing.

Christopher Loeffler

Christopher Loeffler, LCSW, is a therapist in private practice who teaches clients a healing process called “shame transformation” as a way to repair the harm they may have caused.