Editor’s Note: David Mercer, a celebrant endorsed by the American Humanist Association, recently performed a backyard humanist funeral. Because such gatherings are especially difficult during the pandemic, we thought reading the very moving eulogy he wrote might be helpful to our readers. We are printing this with the permission of the family involved.
A few months ago, I did a funeral for a teenage boy who took his own life. Every funeral is different because each family is different, so the following words, while they helped the family I addressed on that day, may not fit other situations. But if it helps, feel free to borrow any or all of it.
We have an expectation as to how life should progress. We’re born and, for a few years, we’re children who grow and learn. As young adults, we train for a career. Then maybe we fall in love and make a life with another person, and perhaps have children. We get older and have grandchildren. Maybe we’ll retire. And after seventy or eighty years, we’ll die. And that’s not necessarily an easy life. We expect to endure our share of illness and injury but it seems fair.
However a young man ending his life so early… this isn’t expected and it isn’t fair. And people who are undergoing this loss have to move through excruciating days of grief.
How do we go on?
When I was a pastor, I tried to offer comfort by telling people that after this life we’ll see each other again in heaven. But I found that even if it’s true, we are still here for now, contemplating the years to come when we carry the burden of loss. I have yet to find any pat answers that make it easier.
However, let me ask this of you: If you knew that one day you will feel better… could you get through today? I’m not talking about heaven, but rather this life. Sometimes it’s enough simply to hang on until a better day.
This young man’s death caught us by surprise. Nobody knew the extent of his suffering. Anyone would have helped if they had known. Why didn’t he say something? He couldn’t.
Depression is usually a hidden disease, undetected for years, and it’s especially hard to see it in the children. Not telling is part of the illness. Within depression are feelings of shame and fear that keep us in hiding. He didn’t tell because he couldn’t—he didn’t know how.
He was doing his best, though. Actually, he was kind of amazing. We are told that he had been struggling with suicidal thoughts since he was a small child. But he kept them at bay and threw himself into his music, got good grades, and was a leader in his school, all while fighting a dark, unnamed illness. He stayed alive a long time for your sakes. To my way of thinking, that makes him a hero.
And just as he was doing his best, so are each of you, and that makes you heroes, too.
We often take on blame for losses and some of you will worry that somehow your actions triggered his death. You may lash yourselves with words like, “I should have known…” You’ll want to replay the times you had with him and wonder if you had acted differently perhaps he would still be alive. But those thoughts are unhelpful and make us sick in our hearts. Could you try and put those thoughts to the side, at least for a moment? I want to respect your feelings but that shame you’re experiencing is more of a reflex than reality, and you’re not being fair to yourself.
Why don’t we honor this person by focusing on healing each other?
Let me start with two questions for his family and friends:
First, did you love this young man? I’m looking for a simple yes-or-no answer here. Saying, “I tried to,” or “I think so,” is not allowed.
Second, did he love you? I’m not asking if he was angry or desperate or needy. I’m simply asking if he loved you—yes or no.
I already know the answers because your tears reveal them. Yes, you loved him and yes, he loved you. Behind all the churning feelings of sadness, angst, and regret there is love. And if there is love, then goodness occurs even now because this young man was alive and remains imprinted within us.
As many tears as have been shed, there has also been laughter from the stories you shared with each other. Because of him, you have each other, which is why you hug often and give support and affection to each other. All these things are healing.
As I said, I was a pastor for a long time and I have given a lot of thought to the source of healing. Over the years, little by little, I set aside the religious doctrine, theology, and unsubstantiated beliefs—along with the shame and inadequacy that spring from those things—and boiled it down to the idea that love is healing. Love is the thing that will get you through the day.
If you need an assignment, then focus on the love. Give it, receive it, feel it.
Here is a poem by E. E. Cummings (from The Poetry Foundation):
[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go, my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
no fate(for you are my fate, my sweet) i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
Peace be with you all.