Breaking the Silence: Death through the Lens of Legacy

By Rachael Freed, LICSW, LMFT

As we accept the blessings and the sacredness of our lives, then surely death, an integral part of life, must be sacred too. Women’s spirituality is interwoven with the beginnings of life: carrying, bringing, nurturing and protecting life. So too we embrace the end of life. Women are caregivers and comforters of the dying and the mourners.

Yet death and dying are taboo subjects. When we look back at Jacob of Genesis, we find no such secret or silence. After Jacob blessed his sons, he wrested a vow from them: bury him not in Egypt, but return his body to the family’s ancestral burial place in Canaan.

It should be as natural for us to address death in our legacy documents as it was in biblical times, but it’s not. I searched historical literature and Western culture looking for a feminine voice to guide us, a woman who dared to break the silence, to speak the truths that others feared even to whisper. Investigating recent times, I found one, and she was just what the doctor ordered. In her internationally-renowned first book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, M.D., broke our society’s taboo of silence about grief, death and the dying process. Time Magazine named her one of the hundred greatest scientists and thinkers of the century. What was revolutionary in 1969 is commonly accepted today: that people who are dying are grieving and have lots to say about the process.

Using Kübler-Ross as our model is an apt memorial: a tribute to her life and her work. She died August 24, 2004. Although her well-known stages of dying may not accurately describe everyone’s experience, her legacy was instrumental. She gave us a new perspective. She liberated our voices about accepting the normality of death as a part of life.

Today, thanks to Kübler-Ross, it is normal and natural to consider our own deaths and to communicate to our loved ones about this reality. One day we will no longer be on earth with them in the form we have today. Marrying the ethical will of biblical tradition with the medical work of a courageous twentieth century woman gives us permission to reflect on and consider our own deaths, and how we want to be treated, memorialized, mourned and remembered.

You may ask, “How does my death relate to my legacy?” It is in recognizing our mortality that we find life precious. Acknowledging death allows us to appreciate and live life more fully every day, with awe and gratitude for our blessings. Consider the significance of expressing this value as a part of your legacy. Here’s an instruction: “Be grateful for your life; live every day as if it were your last!” Unpalatable? Likely to be misunderstood as pious or controlling? How about wording it then as a beautiful blessing? “May you experience and appreciate the abundance of your life; may you live every day to the fullest.”

This legacy is even more effective if you express it by the way you live your life. Articulating your requests about having your life end with dignity and respect demonstrates that you care enough about yourself to ask to be memorialized in ways real and personal and meaningful to you. It will teach by your living example that your loved ones have lives and deaths that are precious too. What better legacy can we leave future generations?

Sometimes acknowledging our mortality stimulates deep thinking, consideration of life purpose and our need to have our lives make a difference. But most of us, living our busy lives, don’t spend our days contemplating death or how we want to be remembered. Yet you know what you love about life and can use that knowledge to express what you find precious and beautiful. That defines you as uniquely as other values.

Excerpted from Chapter 4, "The Women’s Legacies Workbook for the Busy Woman"
Copyright © 2005, Revised edition 2008 Rachael Freed

Related articles:
Who Needs a Will?
The Value of Reminiscing
Family Reorganization After a Loss

Also by Rachael Freed:
Creating a Legacy: Spiritual-Ethical Wills
Writing Your Legacy

Rachael Freed Rachael Freed, LICSW, LMFT, is a Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing. Her work empowering ordinary people to document their legacies and create spiritual-ethical wills can be accessed in her books, Women's Lives, Women's Legacies: Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations and The Women's Legacies Workbook for the Busy Woman. More at and 612-558-3331. A pioneer in family-centered care in life-threatening and chronic illness, she founded Minnesota's first hospital-based program for families of the dying, and is the author of Heartmates: A Guide for the Spouse and Family of the Heart Patient, providing resources for the emotional and spiritual recovery for families of heart patients.

Image credit: allen reichert/Flickr Creative Commons

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