08/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Writing Your Own Obituary

Beaudelaire once said that true genius is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously without losing your mind. I felt like I was doing that yesterday as I sobbed my way through the heart-breaking tribute to Michael Jackson, half ashamed for ever judging him, half aware he may have done wrong. But somehow, at the end of his short life, the whole world offered up a lesson in forgiveness and convened to honor all that he did right. This tribute reminded me of that saying about the line between good and evil running right down the middle of our foreheads. Anyway, I was grateful for the opportunity to break down with so many millions who are grieving all the losses they are grieving, thankful to Michael in a way for helping us open the floodgates. We need to cry. We need to cry for a ton of reasons, but we wait so long those tears get jammed and soon we're afraid of the torrent to come.

A friend of mine emailed the other day to say that her mom is dying. Just recently diagnosed with cancer and her time is short. She had the most beautiful thing to say about crying:

"And as for me - I know that I, like Mom, have a delayed response dynamic. When bad news comes I can be really good at swallowing it whole and burying it for 15 years or more. It's easy to let doing hide fear. I have a feeling that's not a healthy thing to do with the death of a parent, particularly one like my mother, whom I love, admire, and with whom I have remained so close and involved day-to-day. So I am giving myself cues several times a day that bring tears - not because I am maudlin, but so that I prepare myself as well as is possible for the death of the one who has known me -- and has actively and beautifully mothered me -- all my life."

My Mom and I wrote our obituaries a few weeks ago. "Now why do you want to go and do a thing like that?" she asked when I came up with the idea. I said I thought it was good to give some thought to death, particularly our own. I think it helps us clarify what's really important, and see if what we're doing with the time we have is what we really want to be doing with it. "Plus," I said, "if people are eventually going to be writing an obituary on you, don't you want to have some input?"

"I guess so. Let me see it," she said, as I handed her a sheet of questions.

These are the questions we answered:

How would I like to be described?

What am I proud of?

What facts are important?

Whom did I leave behind?

What exists because I was here?

What were my talents and how did I share them?

Who am I grateful for?

Who do I want to know I've gone and how shall they be notified?

We took about 15 minutes, then read our answers to each other. At the end of hers, she had included her computer password, her email contacts password and a note telling me where her vital info folder was. It wasn't maudlin. We didn't cry. We did it like a spiritual practice. A kindness for those left behind. And I now have a file called Obituaries, in case anyone needs to find mine.