When my friend Elizabeth’s* grandmother died last year, the task of giving her eulogy felt almost insurmountable. A formidable woman with a colorful history, capturing her spirit in a five-minute speech felt, to my friend, impossible—until she remembered a funny anecdote about her grandmother and a container of mint-chocolate chip ice cream. “Everyone in my family knows the famous mint-chocolate chip ice cream story,” Elizabeth said. “I knew if I could work that into my tribute, people would laugh, which is exactly what my grandmother would have wanted.”
Being asked to give a eulogy is a huge honor, but it can also be scary! Public speaking can be intimidating on the best of days, and the thought of speaking eloquently and clearly when you’re also grieving sounds, to a lot of us, simply too overwhelming. But there are some basic tips and tricks you can employ to give your friend or family member a tribute you can be proud of.
Write it down—and practice: Speaking from the heart is important when giving a eulogy—no one wants to feel like they’re at a business conference. At the same time, you might only have a few minutes to speak, and you don’t want to waste that time gathering your thoughts—or worse, saying something you might regret. Write down your speech beforehand and practice in front of the mirror, or, even better, a trusted friend.
Be specific: A eulogy is different from an obituary—the goal here isn’t necessarily to give a full overview of your deceased loved one, but to communicate something about who they were as a person. Instead of generalizations like “Susan was a generous woman” or “Mike loved his grandchildren,” think about specific instances in which those qualities were demonstrated—describe a beloved grandmother’s weekly volunteer commitment to a soup kitchen, or a friend’s habit of calling to catch up every Sunday at the same time. One caveat here is to be respectful: you might have a few off-color stories about a dear friend, and while sharing them in your eulogy isn’t totally verboten, it’s a good idea to check with close surviving family members first. A good way to think of it is that if it’s something the deceased wouldn’t have wanted to share with their spouse or children, the eulogy might not be the best time to share it.
Don’t be afraid to cry: The number one reservation people express about giving eulogies is that they’re afraid to cry. If the thought of tearing up in front of a crowd makes you genuinely uncomfortable, then by all means pass the job to someone else, but remember—people know grief is hard, and no one will expect you to be perfectly composed! Have tissues and water on hand, and make a mental note to remember where you feel your eyes well during your practice sessions.
But don’t be afraid to laugh: I once attended a memorial service for a family friend where, during the eulogy, the deceased’s brother told a story about the two of them pretending to be minor TV celebrities in order to get backstage at a huge concert. As I looked around the room, I realized that everyone, from the widow to the funeral director, was laughing so hard they were doubled over in stitches. After watching our friend go through a long and painful illness, it was a welcome relief to remember just how funny he had been, and everyone who knew him was grateful for the chance to honor him through humor.
*Some names have been changed
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