I am sometimes truly surprised at what gets traction on a blog. A few years ago, I posted a eulogy for my brother who overdosed on heroin, and some months later, I posted a separate eulogy for my abusive father. What I hadn’t expected was the amount of attention this would attract from people seeking advice on writing eulogies for similarly troubled individuals in their own lives. I got this email a while back:
I’m hoping you can help me. My father-in-law passed away from a long battle with alcoholism. My family has been doing everything in our power to save him over the last 13 years. We’ve been through multiple rehabs, temporary sobriety, relapses, trouble with the law. You name it, we tried it. Unfortunately, after all of our efforts and support, he succumbed to his addiction. We are having a very small burial and I have offered to do the service. I’m lost as to what I should be saying. The hurt and pain our family is experiencing is so raw. I want to say something beautiful and positive, share stories about the good times but I feel I shouldn’t be hiding the fact that his death was caused by mental health and addiction. I don’t know where to start so I’m hoping you can give me some advice from your experience. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. It’s so hard. Thank you.
Here’s my advice to anyone in the unenviable position of delivering a eulogy for a troubled family member.
Broadly speaking, I suggest that a eulogy serves two purposes: to honor the memory of the departed, and offer solace and comfort to the living. I would further suggest that achieving both can only happen if you tell the whole story of the recently deceased. As reflected in my eulogies for my father and brother, I didn’t mince words about either man. Both were deeply flawed, and to sugarcoat their mistakes – particularly in the case of my brother, since his mistakes ultimately claimed his life – would have been futile. Instead, I sought to be forthright about their lives.
Which brings me to what I think is absolutely critical to a meaningful eulogy: when I say tell their whole story, tell their whole story. Not just the bits where the recently departed made a mess of things, or the stories that cast him or her in nothing but the most favorable light. Instead, speak of the recently departed in a way that makes him or her fully recognizable to those in attendance. Consider this: if an individual who never knew the deceased showed up to the service and heard you speak, how accurately would he or she understand the deceased based on what you had to say?
In addition, remember that you will be speaking about one of God’s children. Whatever your loved one’s flaws may have been – and if you’re reading this blog post, I’m certain that they were many – he was still a son or daughter of God. All of us, no matter how virtuous we may have been, will leave some level of damage behind when we pass on, and someday, someone will deliver the eulogy at your funeral as well. As challenging as it may be, do your best to have charity towards him or her, (see 1 Corinthians 13), to be as kind towards him or her as you would want your future eulogizer to be towards you.
Most of all, pray for God’s Holy Spirit to guide you as you write and speak. While I have spoken in church on numerous occasions, my eulogy for my father – which I did deliver at his memorial service – was written out word for word. Even then, I ended up going off script once or twice, simply because I felt that something needed to be said. In the end, I think there was some degree of closure and healing for those in attendance. When I took my seat with the congregation after speaking, one of my brothers leaned over and said, “Good job.” Which is high praise, coming from him.
So don’t sidestep avoid speaking openly about your loved one’s issues, no matter how acute or damaging they were. Don’t soft-pedal the pain he or she inflicted on friends and family. Be forthright and honest, but also be loving and merciful, praying for God to bless you as you speak. Do this, and I am certain that there will be some real healing and closure for all in attendance.