by Liz David
As we age, we begin to think about legacy. We write health care proxies which may or may not include ”do not resuscitate” orders. We may designate a family member or independent person as having our power of attorney. We write wills as to how we want our financial assets distributed and include lists of those we wish to receive our personal items such as precious jewelry, family heirlooms and special, meaningful, possibly sentimental items. We may agonize about who should get what and how much, who should receive this or that item, or who even wants anything!
Some of us offer our children and grandchildren these items as we age, before we die. “Thank you, Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa–but we don’t have any room. It just doesn’t fit.” Or, worse, “it isn’t our taste.” Or, even, “You still have a lot of years ahead, and we want you to continue to enjoy the item” of the moment while you still can.
There is another legacy, though, that may be even more meaningful than the above and doesn’t depend on legalities or whether or not anyone wishes to receive the item. It is a “Legacy Letter,” or, as described in ancient times, an Ethical Will. A Legacy Letter is a letter we write to our loved ones, either to be opened after death, or shared whenever you decide the time is right. It is a way to synthesize our thoughts and feelings in a meaningful and loving way. It is a way to transmit our love, our special stories, anecdotes, and the lessons we have learned over a lifetime.
As older adults, we consciously, or not, are models. Our behavior, attitudes and values are transmitted to those around us. We teach by our lives, our examples, our deeds, our spoken and unspoken words. It is normal for us to think about what is important for us to transmit to those in our sphere, our family, loved ones, closest friends.
Don’t get me wrong. Keeping our relationships “current” should be a top priority, either through confronting difficult subjects or, simply, giving a peck on the cheek as we walk out the door, knowing that, given life’s unpredictability, we may never see that person again. It may sound dramatic, but it’s true!
Here are some guidelines that I’ve used when helping Legacy Letter participants through the process.
- Are there specific things you wish to say to specific people?
- What are the important teachings, messages, etc. you would like to leave as your legacy?
- What qualities in the people you are writing to have given you pride or pleasure? What do you want to affirm about them?
- If you have a life partner, would you want to give him or her encouragement to re-couple?
- What acts of charity would you like survivors to do in your memory? Do you want money donated? To a specific cause
- Discuss funeral plans. Remember funerals are for your survivors.
Do’s and Don’t’s
- Do include your favorite jokes and memories of the good times you’ve shared.
- Don’t scold, criticize or use this as a guilt trip to punish people.
- Inform loved ones where you have stored your Legacy Letter.
- Update periodically
Regarding whether to write your Legacy Letter on the computer or handwritten–I suggest you do both. There is nothing so precious as receiving a handwritten letter, and it will reflect your style and personality in ways that will be appreciated beyond measure.
May you go from strength to strength.
When we were in our 40’s, my husband and I bought a sundial with the saying “grow old along with me–the best is yet to be.” I then felt a “calling” and, at age 45, earned my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees and became a bereavement counselor. Later, a friend encouraged me to join BOLLI where I began to offer courses in which we discuss our aging–from the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of our lives. My passion is to help others to gain deeper understanding of themselves and the changes, losses, gains, and glories of aging. So, “grow old along with me–the best is yet to be.”