Andrea Driessen: The profound power of gratitude and "living eulogies"

Recorded atDecember 08, 2021
Duration (min:sec)12:39
Video TypeTEDx Talk
Words per minute156.86 slow
Readability (FK)69.33 very easy
SpeakerAndrea Driessen

Official TED page for this talk


Why do we often wait so long to recognize each other's gifts? Why are the truest compliments for the people we love often said only after they're no longer around to hear and savor them? Andrea Driessen makes the case for writing eulogies for the living, sharing the power of "Gracenotes" to offer connection on a deeper level and dispel any regrets of waiting until a loved one's death to appreciate their presence in your life.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:04 I have a death wish.
200:07 Now before you just boo me off the stage for saying such a thing in a pandemic, I'll explain with a little back story, starting with my second grade gym class.
300:18 This was the longest, most humiliating hour of the week.
400:23 My PE teacher, Mr. Jensen, was a former drill sergeant, and I always felt like the weakest kid.
500:32 On my report card, he checked the boxes corresponding to what must have been important for kids' physical development in the '70s.
600:40 Oh, except the one on leadership qualities, he left that one unchecked.
700:45 Then he added a note.
800:47 He said, "Andrea has difficulty kicking balls."
900:51 (Laughter)
1000:54 My dad, who was always the one to see people's gifts instead of their limits, wrote a letter back to Mr. Jensen.
1101:01 He said, "Andrea may have difficulty kicking balls, but you should see her stand on her head and do cartwheels."
1201:08 (Laughter)
1301:10 As a kid, I was usually the smallest on the playground, never athletic, picked last for, you guessed it, kickball.
1401:19 I took solace in my dad's sincere support.
1501:22 But now, as a business owner, I can see that ball kicking can really come in handy (Laughter)
1601:30 Anyway, in that one simple sentence to a short-sighted gym teacher "but you should see her," my dad showed me that focusing on strengths more than weaknesses feels really good.
1701:42 That there are other ways to look at the world and that it's important to recognize each other's gifts.
1801:49 So with all that great karma my dad had built up around appreciation with me, it only seems right that some praise would ultimately come his way.
1901:58 Long into his fruitful and active retirement, he was featured in a hometown newspaper story.
2002:05 The article described the many ways he contributed to our small Midwestern town.
2102:10 And he sent a copy of that piece to my siblings and me with a short handwritten note.
2202:16 He was always really modest, so he just said, "Well, it's better than having a eulogy read over a casket."
2302:26 My dad died seven years ago at the age of 96, and he was surrounded by family and friends and two hospice workers.
2402:34 He left this world not 20 feet from where he’d come into it.
2502:40 He was born and he died in the same house.
2602:44 I like to think he died as well as he'd lived.
2702:48 On his own terms.
2802:51 I had the honor of giving the eulogy, and ultimately he'd chosen cremation over that "casket."
2902:58 As I looked over at my dad's ashes, I had to smile because, you know, our dad really loved beer.
3003:06 So instead of putting his ashes in a blasé urn, we put them in a big, shiny beer growler.
3103:12 (Laughter)
3203:15 So my remarks over the growler were a sincere tribute to a superb human being.
3303:21 Not unusual as far as eulogies go, except for one thing.
3403:26 He'd already heard it.
3503:28 Those many years earlier, after I'd received his note about how having nice things said about you while you're alive beats the alternative, I wrote my dad a letter.
3603:40 And the theme of the letter reflected a common thread that I had noticed in his long life.
3703:45 The theme of building.
3803:48 Our dad had helped to build so many things.
3903:52 Gun emplacements in World War II; a new industrial park; a vibrant hobby as a self-taught and later acclaimed woodcarver; confidence in others; a many-decades-long marriage; a family, a home.
4004:13 And he had the chance to read it all long before he died.
4104:18 So that had me asking, why are eulogies only for dead people?
4204:26 Why do we wait so long to recognize each other's gifts?
4304:31 Why are the truest compliments and the sincerest sentiments said about people we love when they can't hear and savor and relish them?
4404:42 And how do we honor all those around us who are very much alive?
4504:48 So what if we turn regret on its head and take all that love and conscientiousness that we habitually express after people die and do it while they're still here?
4605:02 Because doing that eases the pain of death and regret for both the dying and the living.
4705:09 So I set out on an intentional quest to bear witness to people who are dying.
4805:15 As a hospice volunteer, I'm learning that those who are dying, they want to know that they're loved.
4905:21 That they've loved well.
5005:24 They feel regret for all sorts of things.
5105:28 For things they didn't do and words they didn't say.
5205:33 Deep down, they want to know that their lives have mattered.
5305:38 They feel really mortal.
5405:41 Because they are.
5505:44 As am I. As are you.
5605:49 So when we learn a loved one may be dying, we face a pivotal choice.
5705:54 We can choose to say nothing and hope that our words will sufficiently honor the person who's no longer here with us.
5806:02 Or we can step up and express our love and appreciation while they're still here.
5906:09 And we can honor all those around us who are very much alive.
6006:15 I call this intentional honoring of others “Gracenotes”.
6106:19 And whether they’re written or spoken, they're this means of freely and openly acknowledging someone's presence and gifts.
6206:28 I know in my bones that these sentiments lessen the pain of grief and increase its grace.
6306:35 Like a musical grace note, they're that extra embellishment that makes something beautiful even better.
6406:43 With Gracenotes, we let our family, our friends, our kids, even our colleagues know not just that they matter
6506:51 but how they matter.
6606:54 And these notes also help us to overcome the illusion, the illusion that there'll always be more time to let others know how they're impacting the world.
6707:07 So what do you think keeps us from "gracing" each other this way?
6807:12 Lack of time?
6907:14 Fear of feeling awkward?
7007:17 Unresolved anger?
7107:20 Maybe a lack of forgiveness.
7207:23 With that in mind, I'll tell you a bit about my friend Sandy.
7307:27 For much of her life, she had this complicated relationship with her mom.
7407:31 She was holding on to decades of resentment.
7507:35 Some of it was tied up in her mom's alcoholism.
7607:38 But now her mom was dying of cancer.
7707:41 And as heart-wrenching as it was to admit, she said sometimes she wanted her to die.
7807:49 Sandy and I happened to go for a walk not long after my dad passed, and I said I felt this sense of freedom and a lack of regret, and I thought it had to be because I gave him that note before he died.
7908:02 So Sandy decided to write her mom a note, and she included an honoring set of memories about what she did love about her mom.
8008:10 She called me later, she said, "You know what?
8108:13 It was like magic.
8208:16 I started liking my mom.
8308:19 I forgave her.
8408:22 I felt compassion for her.
8508:25 My heart got softer."
8608:30 Here's the thing.
8708:32 When we're writing a Gracenote, you're not trying to get published in a poetry anthology.
8808:38 You don't have to sound like Shakespeare.
8908:42 My guess is you're probably not trying to get a job at Hallmark.
9008:46 Just want to sound like you.
9108:48 You just need to be willing to try.
9208:52 You're aiming for truth, authenticity, love.
9308:59 What I've learned over and over is that the pain of regret is always greater than the challenge of writing a Gracenote.
9409:09 A moment of grace can be that simple and that profound.
9509:14 It's an experience that forever touches the dying and those who are left behind.
9609:22 So what now?
9709:25 You might be sitting there thinking what you'd say or how to get started.
9809:29 Business groups and long-term care groups that I speak to use what I like to call the Mad Libs approach.
9909:36 Maybe you played Mad Libs in middle school.
10009:39 Maybe you still play Mad Libs.
10109:41 It’s that fun, fill-in-the-blank word game.
10209:44 So with a little bit of Mad Libs style, we get this easy-to-use Gracenotes road map.
10309:51 "You are the only person I know who ..."
10409:57 "I always laugh when I think about ..."
10510:01 "You will leave a legacy around ..." Bottom line, you can't do this wrong.
10610:08 It's impossible.
10710:10 And if writing’s not your thing, what if you made a video?
10810:15 A drawing?
10910:16 Maybe you're really good at PowerPoint decks.
11010:20 Could you write a grace sentence?
11110:24 The medium doesn't matter.
11210:27 What matters is the doing.
11310:31 What I've learned in this journey of my own and in talking to others about their losses, is that Gracenotes create the sense of completeness, contentedness and calm.
11410:45 I vividly recall the last night my dad was alive.
11510:49 By then he was unconscious, and everyone else had gone to bed.
11610:53 I sat with him with my hand softly on his.
11710:58 And on this unrepeatable night, I didn't have to worry about trying to find the words to tell him all that he'd meant to me and only hope that he could hear what I said.
11811:10 Instead, I could be present to his dying.
11911:13 I could affirm that if this was his time to move on, that was OK.
12011:20 I could love him with presence and with touch, knowing full well that my Gracenote those many years earlier had been a sincere and thorough rendering of his life well lived.
12111:34 Ever since, I've felt very little regret.
12211:37 And I know it's because I shared my full heart with him before it was too late.
12311:46 So I hope, I deeply hope, that you don't know anyone who's actively dying.
12411:53 But given the times we're in, that may well not be the case.
12511:58 No matter what, I encourage you to just look around.
12612:03 People everywhere are dying to be seen and heard, to know how they matter.
12712:11 They're dying to get your Gracenote.
12812:15 So that is my death wish.
12912:18 That you see how your note, no matter what form it takes, is like an oasis in a desert of people who are thirsty to know they're making a difference.
13012:31 Like my dad said, it's better than having a eulogy read over a casket.
13112:38 Thank you.
13212:39 (Applause)