The tradition of a eulogy is designed to honor a life that has passed. It should be sincere, insightful, and written from a place of love. But what if your relationship with the deceased was strained in some way and left you with conflicting feelings? Can the very act of writing the eulogy be healing? Yes. It can.
When my 74-year-old father died on New Year’s Eve 2017, I was charged with writing his eulogy. Our relationship was never incredibly close, but it was always nice enough, and I loved him. As my father entered his later years, however, he found his voice; the voice of the Tea Party, and later, Trump. As a social liberal, I had trouble understanding where his new-found zeal was rooted. He had always been a moderate Republican, and I don’t remember him ever speaking in pejorative language about people different from us as he began to over the course of the last decade.
As the years passed and Fox News became his singular media source, I started noticing changes in him. He was angrier, more outspoken, and he began putting bumper stickers such as, “I’m a Conservative. Deal with it,” on the back of his SUV. I struggled with these changes. When he would attend a school event for my kids, I found myself asking him to park in far-away spaces to avoid others seeing his bumper stickers, and once I became so anxious about his attendance at an event that I called him to ask that he not wear a Make America Great Again hat to the Jewish Community Center where the kids were performing a play. I worked myself up into a lather envisioning him scaring the life out of everyone as he walked in bearing what felt like a bright red symbol of anti-Semitism. And when the Tea Party flagpole went up in his front yard, I found I could no longer visit him without feeling a pit in my stomach. I hated to admit it, even to myself, but I was embarrassed by him and what he was beginning to represent.
Yet when I sat down to write his eulogy, my job was to honor him, to encapsulate the essence of who he was throughout his life, and pay my last respects. I took my role seriously and found that my admiration for him flowed easily. After all, he was a veteran, an entrepreneur, a dedicated father who provided consistency, and he helped ground me. I found singing his praises came easily, but it didn’t feel honest to ignore the rough spots.
My eulogy was unapologetically long, and as I dug deep and spoke honestly about how he tried to live his life and what he brought to mine, I felt the years of conflicted feelings melt inside me. And I chose to publicly acknowledged the rough spots:
“There were years when my sisters and I lived our lives in ways our father didn’t understand. We made choices he didn’t agree with, yet he could always be counted on to support our decisions, show up for us, and tell us he loved us. He truly loved us unconditionally, and we felt it.
I cannot speak for my sisters, but while I always loved him, I found it challenging to like him unconditionally at times. He and I had extremely different social and political views. We saw people and the world differently, but we found our own way of balancing that by rarely talking politics, not connecting on Facebook, and steering clear of conversations we knew would not be productive. There were times that that was hard for me, because I wanted him to be different and see things the way I did, but then I would stop and think about how he approached his relationship with me. He didn’t want me to be different. He just loved me. Always. No matter what. Unconditional love is a powerful thing, and it’s something I hope all people can experience.”
And there it was…the healing. I realized right then and there that for my dad, things were easy. He just loved me. That was harder for me to do without complication, but perhaps that was part of the wisdom that came from his life: just love your kids. Always. No matter what.
Writing a eulogy for someone, whether it is delivered or not, can be an avenue to make peace with challenging dynamics. Forcing ourselves to honor the best of someone upon death allows our hearts to shift to a more peaceful place in life.