Writing a Eulogy: The Language of Grief
A man’s dying is more the survivors’ affair than his own.
~ Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
A eulogy can be even more daunting to write than an obituary; with it you not only express your own sorrow and do your best to distill, encapsulate and articulate an entire life, but you also help to guide others through the loss you share.
Unlike obituaries, eulogies are meant to be read aloud, while a transcript of it is sometimes made available later online or in a memory-book. This is a challenge for many people; not all of us are comfortable with public speaking. There’s also a knack to writing something that’s meant to be both heard and read; sometimes things sound very different from the way they look on the page. While the obituary can just be a few facts, a eulogy ideally has an arc, a trajectory – a beginning, middle and end: who your loved one was and what life with them was like; what it is to lose them; what they left behind for you to carry into the future.
First, sit down and make a list – either alone or with family members – of your loved one’s defining characteristics: strong, generous, devout, insightful, talented, funny, empathetic, never sent you away hungry, always picked the perfect present, taught you the meaning of honesty.
Next, write down a few words about what parts of you relate to the deceased most closely. What did you share? Are you braver for having known the deceased? Gentler? Did they mentor you, guide you, save you, teach you, change you? In what part of your life will you feel their loss most sharply?
Then think of a few specific memories, stories that exemplify your loved one and the kind of life they lived.
Even if this person wasn’t easy to define, you should be starting to see a bit of a central theme – a quality or set of qualities that are really the core of who they were: a nurturer, a teacher, a thinker, a breath of fresh air, an example for us all.
When you’ve got all that in front of you, it’s time to start writing.
Happiness is beneficial for the body but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.
~ Proust, The Past Recaptured
The language of grief is harsh and beautiful, devastating and uplifting. With it we lament those who have left us, and also celebrate their life; through it we learn to better appreciate our own short time here among those we love. These are the moments – and the words – that change us.
There’s no set structure to a eulogy these days, really. It’s an entirely free-form art. Begin with whatever you think will strike the right chord and then experiment with dynamics, with the rise and fall of emotion within your speech. You can start out strong and then pull back, for example, or begin gently and build from there. The things you say can have a profound effect on your listeners: you can break the surface-tension on their grief so that they can express it and seek each other’s comfort, then help them to find moments of lightness in which the first tendrils of hope and healing can begin to unfurl and intertwine.
Try to keep your sentence structure simple and conversational. Many people use loftier language to mark momentous events; you can do that, too – just don’t overwhelm yourself with mouthfuls of words you don’t use very often. You want it to be comfortable to read and to hear. Some people write out every word; others just put down a list of talking points to stay on track and use a more informal, stream-of-consciousness style.
You’ll want to try to stay under five minutes unless you have a strong reason to go longer. Time is strange and elastic when you’re in front of a crowd; sometimes it’s over before you know it, but it can go on and on and be very difficult to fill, leaving you unfocused and uncomfortable. As you write, read it aloud often – in front of someone if you think that’ll help, or in front of a mirror if you’d like to keep it private – and try to estimate how long it’s going to go. Rehearsing aloud will also help you hear words or phrases you might have used too often and to pick out monotonous or sing-song vocal patterns. It’s also helpful to practice on video; you can step back and watch yourself from another perspective, which can help you to see and hear all kinds of things you didn’t catch from the inside.
Just as a precaution you might want to have someone else – preferably someone who isn’t quite as deeply emotionally involved, a family friend perhaps – poised to take over and finish reading if you’re overcome. You probably won’t need it, but their presence can be reassuring.
Don’t feel like you can’t be lighthearted or even funny. It’s important to change the mood and tempo throughout. Be honest. If you’re angry, if you feel cheated, say so. If you feel blessed, say that, too. Take your listeners on a journey: acknowledge their sorrow, remind them to cherish gladder times, give them strength to carry on. Remember the things that brought you joy, the iconic, defining moments, what you’ll miss most about your relationship with your lost beloved. Those who live in our hearts and memories can endure forever in our words.
You can add quotes from literature and history if you like; there are voices throughout the ages that have described our feelings perfectly, distilling them down into something lyrical and fine. They can add great elegance and depth to a memorial.
What is to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
~ Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
Now: many people face a problem that’s difficult to discuss but very real and quite common. How do you eulogize someone with whom you had a painful, discordant relationship? What if you’re in a position where you’re obligated to speak about them even though you feel like you don’t have anything good to say?
There’s no way to help you work through a lifetime of baggage with someone in the time it takes to write their eulogy – but that simple act might be a great way to begin. At the very least there are some things you can try to help you get it over-with.
First, though this experience may be incredibly painful and difficult for you, remember that the eulogy isn’t about you; it’s about the dead and it’s for the living, for everyone who feels the pain of this passing. You may not be able to bring yourself to forgive, but healing and great dignity can be found in repaying harm with generosity.
Try to look past the tough stuff to their good qualities. It might be something small; maybe they had a great singing voice, or made delicious spaghetti, or kept their garage really well-organized. Can you expound on those aspects of them?
If not, try outright spin. Think of it as a way to be kind to your listeners, to help them have an easier time with this than you are. Instead of ‘untruthful’, maybe this person was ‘full of imagination’ or a ‘great storyteller.’ Not stingy but ‘frugal’; ‘stoic’ instead of ’emotionally unavailable’; not stubborn: ‘iron-willed’. There are often moments of black humor in the midst of grief; this exercise may be the source of some of them.
But perhaps that’s not the way you want to go. Maybe you need to be honest – and plain: “Most of you know that Dad and I didn’t spend much time together over the last few years. It’s because we didn’t see eye to eye on much, and after a while we figured out we loved each other better from a distance.” It’s very likely that there are others who will relate. You don’t need to be brutal; you’ll feel better about it later if you’re not – and the truth is often painful enough even when it’s wielded gently.
If you have to say things that are difficult for others to hear, try to balance them out with whatever positivity you can. Maybe your hurtful relationship with your mother is what makes your connection with your sister so deep. Maybe the hardships you’ve gone through are what make you so deep; maybe the pain you’ve suffered is what’s made you strong, taught you compassion. Shed light on those truths, too. If it weren’t for suffering, the human spirit would never know triumph.
Finish on a hopeful note if you can. Grief is dark and heavy, but there’s beauty in it, too. Life is precious because it’s short. Death comes for all of us; it’s how we spend the time we have that’s important, what we leave behind in the hearts and minds and lives of others.
Great grief is a divine and terrible radiance which transfigures the wretched.
~ Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
Eulogy help at a glance:
1. Who were they?
2. What was most important about them?
3. What will you miss most?
4. How did they change you?
5. What was their effect on the lives they touched?
6. What do you want the world to remember about them?
7. What did they leave behind?
8. What can we learn from their life?