The Empty Altar

84626_annunciation_catholic_church_crestwood_church_pulpit-1This week I attended a funeral mass for a friend’s father.  When it came time for the eulogy, one of his 5 daughters walked up to the altar, looked out over the congregation, and told us about her dad.

One of my biggest regrets is not giving the eulogy at my mother’s funeral.  I remember going back to my hotel room the afternoon she died and thinking I should do this, that I should sit down right then in my darkened room and get to work, that I should write something meaningful and true and loving, that I should gather some courage and stand up there on the day of and tell a few stories about my mom, about her life.  But I didn’t.  Instead, I spent the afternoon writing and rewriting thank you letters to her doctors and nurses and hospice workers, looking up their addresses and the correct spellings of their names, driving frantically around town with a map, hand-delivering every stuffed white envelope.  When the day of the funeral arrived, I sat in the pew with the smallest scrap of paper folded and crumpled in my hands, some common verse I’d plucked from the Bible at the last moment, a verse that that took me about 20 seconds to read, a verse that said nothing at all.

I’ve written countless things since: essays and stories and emails and to-do lists and book chapters; I’ve written letters of complaint; I’ve written school papers where I didn’t even believe my own thesis statement; I’ve helped close friends write eulogies and anniversary speeches for their parents.  And yet.

I’m reminded of this line at the end of Strayed’s “Tiny Beautiful Things”:  You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.

Have you ever written a eulogy, or wish you had?


22 thoughts on “The Empty Altar

    1. Teri

      True enough. Still, there are some things where you have the one moment to step up. No matter what I write I will regret not stepping up in that moment.

  1. donnaeve

    I am very fortunate to still have both of my parents, and both of my in-laws. But, I’ve often thought, what will I do? When that time comes…I’d like to think I could, and would.

    1. Teri

      I always thought I would. Until the time came and I couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. I certainly didn’t write all those thank you letters because I’m especially thoughtful; I wrote them to avoid writing, which I only see in retrospect.

  2. LauraMaylene

    Teri, you and I must be on the same wavelength. I was just thinking about this yesterday — the regret that I didn’t write or give a eulogy for my mother. At the time, there was no question that I wouldn’t. I was 20, she’d died quiet unexpectedly six days prior, and I was a mess. I didn’t think about it at all, which now seems strange to me, but I also get it. In fact, no one spoke at her service except for our pastor. It was mostly a generic service, but he added a few lines — on his own, I believe — mentioning her love of her horses, and then he added: “And above all, she loved her children.” That was the only part that got through to me.

    A friend of mine who lost his father not long ago shared the eulogy he wrote and delivered. It was absolutely beautiful. In a way I wish I could have done something similar for my mother, but I also forgive myself for not being capable in that moment.

    1. Teri

      Now yours, Laura, I understand. But I was 36, a writer, and knew this was coming for a few years. I forgive myself for not doing it, but I also know that the time passed and there’s no way to get that back. The regret remains.

  3. Erika Marks

    Even though I can’t know how you’re feeling, my friend, and I wouldn’t dream of suggesting I do, I think there is such power in Laura’s words “I also forgive myself for not being capable in that moment,” and that as true as Cheryl’s words are, our strength is rarely, I think, a study rope, able to keep us moored when we need it most. We age and grow and learn, and in the moments that challenge us the most we do the very best we can. Your gift with words, Teri, will always be a testament to those you loved, no matter when you set them down to paper or speak them into the air. I know this to be true.

    1. Teri

      Thanks, Erika. I believe I was capable in that moment and just chose not to do it. It was my own active avoidance that troubled me then, and still.

  4. Josey

    i’ve given and written eulogies for four of my grandparents (maternal and my stepdad’s mother and father). it’s different when it’s time, there’s a peace about it. I was sad, but not devastated.

    i do wonder about my dad’s funeral. i’m sure it was straight-up, solid catholic proceeding with a priest talking about why god takes young men.

    as your friend, i am so very sorry about the longing and the sadness that comes missing a moment in time that you now wish went differently.

    (as a writer, use it. funnel all that longing and grief and love and write, write, write.)

  5. chillcat

    No, I haven’t. The only time I was drawn to speak was at my young cousin’s funeral, but I was 14 and in shreds. It’s a hard regret to bear. Ciao cat

    1. Teri

      I spoke at one of my grandfather’s funerals recently, but I didn’t know him well and, in the end, it felt like I was trying to make up for something that couldn’t be made up for.

  6. MSB

    We didn’t have a conventional funeral for my mom. It was more of a gathering, in her apartment. I don’t think I would have been able to speak. Not then, no, but now, yes.

    I’m with Cat. Regrets are certainly hard to bear.

    1. Teri

      I remember my mother’s service as so generic, as if the priest barely even knew her. Thankfully 2 good friends played guitar and sang a couple of incredible songs. For that I’m grateful.

  7. Averil Dean

    My father’s service was small and very personal. We simply gathered in a room and talked. My mom talked mostly, about how my dad was a quiet man. He lived quietly and died quietly and continues to be quietly mourned. I don’t regret not speaking at his service. I think we all process grief the best way we can in the moment and I did what I was capable of at the time. What I regret are the last years of his life when I pulled away from him, when his alcoholism and depression were at their worst and it became too painful to be around him. He needed me emotionally but all I gave him were bags of groceries and distracted phone calls until the final moments when, selfish as ever, I tried to cram in a lifetime of apologies.

    We always regret the things we didn’t do. It’s human nature. But I hope you’ll be easier on yourself in the future, knowing that while she was alive, your mother felt that you loved her.

    1. Teri

      It is never selfish to put space between yourself and an addict, as you’re not communicating with the person but with the facade of their disease. This is so very very hard, but I believe this is true especially when you have children — as your first job is to be a whole person for your kids.

  8. Downith

    From Pema Chodrun:

    ‘There is a simple practice we can do to cultivate forgiveness. First, we acknowledge what we feel- shame, revenge, embarrassment, remorse. Then we forgive ourselves for being human. Then, in the spirit of not wallowing in the pain, we let go and make a fresh start. We don’t have to carry the burden with us anymore. We can acknowledge, forgive, and start anew. If we practice this way, little by little we’ll learn to abide with the feelings of regret for having hurt ourselves and others. We will also learn self-forgiveness.”

    Yeah, I’m working on it.

  9. girl in the hat

    I’m sure someone up there already said this but it’s never too late to say stuff. Especially a eulogy, which is more for you than for the person who died. I hope you’ll write it now, Teri.

  10. Lyra

    The closest I’ve come is one of my roommates in college. I didn’t write it but of the five of us, one did and another stood up next to her for support. I don’t remember much about the service other than them playing a Billy Joel song and the look on my best friend’s face as she stared at me the entire time she was up there. What do you possibly say when a girl dies just after she turns twenty-one? I don’t remember a single word anyone said at anytime during the funeral or the wake. I only remember what she looked like in that casket and that she had on gold nail polish which made no sense to me.
    I subscribes then and do now, to the idea that you do what you can handle in times like that.
    You saw it as busying yourself with notes that never needed to be written, but you can’t go back and know what was going on then. You can only take the you now that is doing the thinking and imagine you know more than you did. You did what you could. Yes, we could always do more, but the weight lies on the living. You lost your mom.
    When my husband’s father died recently, my husband was handed the task to come up with the perfect poem for the cards. Because he is circumspect by nature, everyone assumed he was fine and it would be an easy task. He put it off and put it off as I threw poem after poem his way. What only I knew, was that he just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t find the right words, because he believed there weren’t any.
    Sometimes there aren’t. And that is okay.

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