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Retirement Weekly: Why wait for loved ones to die before you eulogize them? Tell them now.

In late 1996, George H.W. Bush wrote a letter to a friend. That’s hardly newsworthy, as the 41st president often jotted personal notes to people he knew. 

But the content of this particular letter—and its recipient—stand out. One ex-president (Bush) was writing to another ex-president (Gerald Ford) to express gratitude for their friendship.

After a chatty opening, Bush gets serious.

“…I have never told you that I treasure my friendship with you very much,” he writes. 

Bush, then 72, shares the kind of wisdom that we associate with reflective older folk.

“As you and I drove across that Ohio countryside last week, it hit me like a ton of bricks, that too often we fail to tell our friends that we really care about them and are grateful to them,” he concludes.

What’s striking about this comment isn’t just its disarming sincerity. It hints at a painful truth: Many of us don’t tell the people closest to us how much they mean to us. Yet when they die, we eulogize them in a surfeit of heaping praise.

You can’t help but think, “If only I had told them all this when they were still alive.”

Larry David pokes fun at this idea in the premiere episode of season 11 of his HBO comedy series, Curb Your Enthusiasm. Guest star Albert Brooks hosts a “live funeral” for himself. Pretending that he’s dead, his friends gather at the mock memorial service and deliver eulogies as he watches the video feed from his bedroom.

The notion of a pre-eulogy—a chance to tell someone in your life how much you cherish them and the impact they’ve made on you—may sound sappy at first. But in these tense times, it’s the kind of soul-nourishing act that can unleash a wellspring of much-needed uplift.

Staging a funeral for someone who’s still around to enjoy it takes planning. It’s like throwing a party, with a twist.

In 2007, Alex Lickerman and his siblings celebrated their father’s 70th birthday by adopting a humorously morbid theme. They gave eulogies as if he had died—and he loved it.

“It was a vehicle to say what he meant to us,” said Lickerman, a primary care physician in Chicago. “People get all these things said about them after they die. He got to hear it all before he died.”

When it was Lickerman’s turn to speak, he followed the ground rule of speaking about his father in the third person.

“That made some of the emotional stuff easier,” he said. “He’d get emotional at points when he heard his four sons verbalize what he meant to them. Being a good father was important to him, and he wanted his sons to admire him.”

Lickerman has tips for others who want to orchestrate a faux memorial service. For starters, combine humor with pathos. Mixing the two elements lightens the mood—and gives everyone a chance to laugh at amusing anecdotes—while making the heartfelt tributes resonate even more.

“Come up with concrete examples of what the person meant to you,” he added. Generalities are fine (“She was so generous”), but amplify them by citing specific memories.

Conclude with a tidy summation of the person’s life, character or impact on you. You want the listener to feel your appreciation, admiration and love.

Benjamin Taylor and the late novelist Philip Roth were good friends. While Taylor did not deliver a pre-eulogy to Roth to let him know how much he valued the friendship, he told an interviewer in 2020, “Philip made me feel that my best self was my real self…The person is giving back to you the feelings you wish you could give to yourself. And seeing the person you wish to be in the world.” 

Now that’s how you wrap up a pre-eulogy.

“Good-natured ribbing is great, but people remember what you end with,” Lickerman said. “So end with emotional impact.”

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