There are already lots of posts on the internet about how to write a eulogy step-by-step. I know, because I read them all the night before my grandfather’s funeral.
My grandfather, a WWII and Korean War veteran and an incredible man, passed away of stomach cancer at 89 years old on Father’s Day this year. In the months prior to his passing, I was able to travel to Rochester and live with him and care for him as his health declined.
Because of this and because I am the oldest grandchild, I was asked by my father and uncles to give the eulogy at his funeral: basically, to sum up my grandfather’s entire life and achievements in one, five-minute speech.
Brevity is not my forte.
I procrastinated on writing my speech in the days before the funeral, if you can call it procrastination when you’re just too emotionally drained to do anything but cry for two days straight at the wake. Regardless, I ended up on my cot at midnight (there were ten people sleeping at the house that night and so, being single and the shortest person, I got relegated to the pantry) with a blank Word document and a eulogy to deliver in nine hours.
For a while, I just lay there clicking the “Home” button on Facebook over and over, not wanting and not knowing how on earth to begin.
“This is it,” the voice in my head kept saying. “This is the ONLY chance you have to say whatever it is you want to say. You better do him justice!”
To write, under a time limit, when you’re in a grief-stricken fog, about the entire life of a person you loved, is a lot of pressure. It isn’t fair, really.
But in the end, it turned out that giving the eulogy was by far the most therapeutic, healing thing I got to do in the aftermath of his death. It was not only a huge privilege to honor a man who I admired and respected, but it was also a means, though accelerated, for processing my grief and saying goodbye.
If you ever have the opportunity to remember someone dear to you in this way, I highly recommend you take it. Here are some things that helped me as worked through my homage in the wee hours of the morning.
1. Empty your brain
I started by doing what I like to call “Mental Vomit:” I literally wrote down anything and everything about my grandpa that I could remember. Good and bad, funny and sad, from our miniature golf trips, to the death of my grandma, to being bounced on his knee as a baby. I wrote down every saying I could remember him using (even the ones with swear words), the times we made fried dough together, and the Fourth of July parades we went to. I wrote down the things he hated and the things he loved (vegetables and cheese, respectively). I knew I wouldn’t talk about all of those things in my five minutes, but it gave me lots of material from which to pull in crafting my masterpiece.
2. Ask for help
All of the instructions on how to write a eulogy say to recount the person’s life in chronological order, starting when they were born. This was a problem, obviously since I have only been a part of the last quarter of his life. So I went and woke up my dad (desperate times call for desperate measures) to draw from his expertise on Papa’s life history. We sat together and talked about his father; his war days and how he was wounded, how he met my grandma, and what he was like as a father. It was a rare chance for us to connect, share memories, support one another, to laugh, and to mourn our loss. I think it also helped my father feel like he got to be a part of the memorial.
3. Don’t worry about perfection
I love public speaking. I had high standards for my presentations in college: I wanted them to be well-written, memorable, funny, and inspiring. I also usually memorized them so I could focus on clearly communicating to my audience.
However, when I gave the eulogy the next morning, I read it straight from the paper. I broke-down halfway through. I changed tenses, sometimes talking to the audience and sometimes talking to my grandfather. Some of my facts and dates were slightly off. But it didn’t matter.
Eulogies aren’t about the speaker anyway.
Everyone knows you had a short time to prepare for a eulogy. Everyone knows you’re in the middle of grieving a terrible loss. And everyone around you is grieving, too. They’re not judging.
I ended up being very happy with the way I remembered my grandfather that day, not just in my five minute remembrance at the podium (yep, I did manage to keep it that short), but also in the early morning hours preceding it. I felt like I had a chance to reminisce, to both get to know him and prepare myself to say goodbye to him.
I was proud of how I summed up his life and his mark on the world, the impact he made on me and on others.
I think he would’ve been proud of me, too.