When we lose someone we love, we are left with their legacy to inspire and guide us. We begin to think about our own. How do we want to be remembered? One powerful old idea has recently been revived, and can help each of us share who we are.
Ever heard of an Ethical Will? Probably not. Let me tell you about this powerful way, nowadays often called a Legacy Letter, to share your legacy with your loved ones. The benefit of this kind of will is that you don’t have to wait until your death. Plus, it’s perfect for the control freaks among us, as we seek to insure that we will be remembered as we prefer. Allow me to share my legacy letter story.
The turning point in the process of growing up is when you discover the core of strength within you that survives all hurt. ~Max Lerner
There I was, two years old, crazy about my father (I’m told, because of course I can’t remember), and he dies. Over the years in waves that come years and sometimes decades apart, I launch into projects in an effort to get to know him and figure out which parts of me are linked to him. As a child who can’t remember her parent, I am a walking advertisement for ethical wills.
Here’s what I’ve learned about him: he was a great guy, more a poet than a salesman (he worked for a book publisher), talented musician who had his own band in high school, who fell hard for my mother when they met at a Christmas party and found a way to send her roses while she visited her family in the North Carolina mountains the next week. His boss told me 50 years after his death that he might well have become president of the company and I believed him since he still had my dad’s picture on his office wall. I read the stack of condolence letters from colleagues and clients that poured in after his death, describing his intelligence and good will. I read narratives his sisters wrote about their growing up in Chicago. I memorized the photos of my early life. Since he took most of them, he rarely appears, which allows me to see through his eyes, in a way.
I can glean a good deal about him from all this, but it’s a poor substutute. If only I could hear directly from him, I’ve always thought, had something in his own hand, to me.
If only he had heard about ethical wills, an awkward name for the very thing I longed for. Instead of a regular will that hands down property and financial assets, an ethical will hands down beliefs, values, stories, and hopes, whatever is important to leave behind.
I thought I invented them myself when I was a young mother and had to leave my two children to take a three week trip to Europe with my husband. I say “had to” because even though I knew intellectually that this trip was a great opportunity – my husband was president of his service club and was being sent to the international convention – I could not bear the idea of leaving the kids. To be honest, I could not bear the idea of something happening to me and never coming back to the kids. I knew they could handle three weeks without me, but a lifetime?
To soothe my anguish, I sat down to write them a letter about all the things I needed them to know if I wasn’t around to tell them myself – about me, my hopes for their futures, about how to meet challenges, what they meant to me. I left the letter at home just in case.
Of course I came back in one piece, having had stimulating and moving experiences on the trip. I can still see the faces of the varied group that traveled to Dachau one day to take in the worst of humankind. I can hear the music in a Hungarian restaurant in Munich where we partied with another international group, and the earnest and overly optimistic declarations that our organization would eradicate polio worldwide in ten years. But the only way I could get myself to leave home and have these experiences was to leave myself behind on those pages.
It turns out I wasn’t alone in my impulse. When I eventually tripped over the work of Barry Baines, a Minneapolis-area doctor involved in end-of-life care, I learned that ethical wills had a name and a 3,000 year history. The first phrase in Barry’s book Ethical Wills is, “At turning points in our lives….” When we know we are up against a life-changing experience – when we walk down the aisle, or the baby is born – we take stock. When we learn of our coming demise as Barry’s patients do, we know that our time to share is limited. For me, faced with the imagined re-creation of my own childhood loss in the lives of my children, it became the right time to put down my thoughts and feelings on paper.
What to include? The things you believe in, experiences you have learned from, advice you can give, apologies and forgiveness, things you wish you’d known, family stories, memories you cherish, hopes for your loved ones, requests about how you hope to be remembered, and thanks you want to offer can all come up. Once you start, it writes itself.
All you need to know is who you are writing to, and why. This is not a place to settle scores or issue blame or instill guilt. This is a place to share your spirit so it can live on in your loved ones. You can write one document to everyone, or personalize a letter to each loved one.
In the old days, the ethical will would be attached to the standard will to be read after death. Now we can choose when and whether to share it while we are still here, in writing, orally, on video, your choice. It is recommended that even if you use new media, you produce a paper copy too that will live on after the technology goes obsolete.
As the walking advertisement for ethical wills and also briefly the imagined inventor, let me offer some final selling points and invite you to consider writing one yourself. In the end, values are of greater importance than valuables. Writing one takes the accidental legacy you would leave if anyone bothered to remember, say, your greatest moment, which they might not know because you never told them, and turns it into a lasting legacy.
The benefits include:
The process may leave you knowing more about yourself and what you hold dear.
Since we don’t sit around the fire and share stories much anymore, being too busy watching reality TV shows, it gives you a chance to direct your loved ones’ attention to more important matters.
In case your messages to your children are often delivered as corrections or criticism, sometimes at the top of your lungs, it offers a way to share the love and concern that underlie all of that in a calm and loving voice.
You get to say how you would like to be remembered, you control freak you.
It serves as a refresher course in what is most important to you, so you can double-check to see if you are living your 168 hours each week in accordance.
I relaxed as soon as I wrote mine. When it needs revising, I do so, but if I got hit by the cosmic bus tomorrow, I know I’ve had my say.
For further tips, see http://www.ethicalwill.com/.
Originally published in The Inquiring Mind blog.