The Case for the Pre-Death Eulogy

Why don’t we share what we love about people when it actually matters?


Death is on my mind a lot.

Having lost all of my grandparents early in life, I don’t know what it’s like to be an adult and lose someone. I fear the day death introduces itself to my family, but I know it’s an inevitability.

In one of Ryan Holiday’s Daily Stoic correspondences — an email sharing stoic wisdom — he says:

“Too often there is far too great a disparity between what we say we feel and how we act on those feelings. It’s only after the sudden loss of a friend that we realize we had been taking them for granted, for instance.”

We need to say more of how we feel before it’s too late. What a terrible feeling it must be to realize we hadn’t shared our true thoughts with our loved ones.

Ryan goes on to say:

“All we have for sure is this present moment. So let’s love it, and the people we are experiencing it with, while we still can.”

I am lucky to love so many people whose lives I fear will come to a premature end, but I spend too much time worrying about it, so I’ve decided to redirect my energy.

Say more when people are alive

I don’t want to wait until it’s too late to tell my mother that her laugh is like a lullaby dipped in sugar, or tell my brother I’ve been proud of him since the day he was born. I don’t want to have to say goodbye to my husband before I tell him that sometimes, when he’s not looking at me, I try to memorize the color of his eyes.

These feelings are real. And they’re real powerful. If my mom knew I felt that way about her laugh, maybe she would laugh more freely and spark a contagion of joy. She’s capable of it, I know she is, but maybe she doesn’t know she is.

Why, then, would I leave this beautiful sentiment for her eulogy? What if instead of worrying so much about the death of those I love — something which I cannot control anyway — I refocused my energy on celebrating them while they’re alive?

Why a eulogy

When I was in middle school I was given the assignment of writing a eulogy for someone in my family who was still alive. I wrote a eulogy for my mother to such a degree of truth and honesty that my teacher asked me if my mom really had died. (She hadn’t). It was the first time I realized words made people feel, and that through them I could make a difference.

Eulogies are one of those mediums in which words have the capability of reaching out and grabbing you — taking a physical hold of you. Does anybody remember President Obama’s eulogy for Beau Biden? It was stunning and it touched thousands of people who didn’t even know Beau personally. How would Beau have felt if the President of the United States told him what he did when he was alive?

What if Beau heard Obama say:

“the example he set made you want to be a better dad, or a better son, or a better brother or sister, better at your job, the better soldier. He made you want to be a better person. Isn’t that finally the measure of a man -– the way he lives, how he treats others, no matter what life may throw at him?”

It gives me chills to think about.

Pre-death eulogies can change the world

When I am praised for something I did, I always want to do more. Recognition is one of the fiercest driving forces of motivation, and eulogies are nothing if not a big poem of recognition. Who wouldn’t want to do more of the things people raved about in their eulogy?

The problem, however, is that we don’t often hear the raving. We bury the praise we have for people who matter to us and only dig it up when it’s time to say our final goodbye.

The most beautiful compliments I have ever witnessed were recited at funerals, when the subject of the praise is unable to live into them. This is a damn shame. It’s a wasted opportunity for someone to know how much they matter and why. Maybe people would do more good if they knew what others really thought of them.

Love wins

Do you love people? Tell them. It doesn’t have to be a eulogy, but I can’t think of a more succinct, powerful way to tell them than that. You could also:

  • Send a text

  • Make a phone call

  • Be a secret admirer

  • Plant a tree in their name

  • Mail a letter

I’ll make it easy for you:

Dear ___________,

I wanted to send you a note to let you know that I love you. I don’t say it nearly enough, but you inspire me by your ______________ and ______________. From your ______________ I have learned ______________. In case nobody has told you lately, you make the world a better place. You matter to me and you matter to a lot of other people, too. Thank you, I love you.

I may not know you, but I know you’re patient because you’ve made it this far in this post. I know you are smart and curious, and you have a heart full of love for the important people in your life. Important people who, one could only hope, might hear their eulogy before their time on Earth comes to an end. It would make a difference.

We save our words until it’s too late. Let’s change this.