Writing Your Legacy

By Rachael Freed, LICSW, LMFT

Writing my spiritual-ethical will was life changing for me. I began to experience myself and my life as precious. I realized that the way I approach my own dying process and how I ask to be treated at death is as important as any other thing I express to my children and grandchildren.

Legacy writing: Document what you love about your life. Reflect on your values and what you value about your life.

• Write sentences that begin with either: “What I love about my life is...” or “What I will miss when I die...”

• Write only one thing in each sentence. Be specific.

• Write things that only you know about, things that you care deeply about, that will die with you if you don’t record them. Consider and feel how these things make your life delicious and delightful.

• Complete these sentences as many times as you can in the allotted time.

• Wander through all the aspects and components of your life. Consider your passions as well as your values.

• Take time to focus your attention on your senses: smelling, touching, hearing, seeing, tasting. For example, “I love the sound of a canoe paddle dipping into a calm lake.”

• Consider relationships, social, family, communal and private moments that you value.

• Move gently from memory to meaning, from the present to the past, from home to the whole planet. For example, “I’ll miss seeing my kids’ and grandchildren’s lives unfold.”

• Time yourself, and limit your writing to no longer than fifteen (15) minutes. Date your writing.

Process Writing: Your process writing probably will not appear in your spiritual-ethical will, but it may weave threads of your thoughts and feelings to help you shape your legacy document. Give yourself adequate time to reflect on and record your process. Here are some thoughts to ponder:

• What was it like to write candidly, to move beyond your internal censor, to express what you love about your life and what you’ll miss when you’re gone?

For me, the experience was bittersweet. I felt weepy immediately, aware that one day I would not be here enjoying this life. At the same time I felt incredibly fortunate to have a life full of beauty, love and meaning. Renowned author and psychotherapist, Irvin Yalom, poses the issue clearly: “What happens after we die is not really the problem. The challenge for us is how we live between now and then, whether we have the courage to stop denying it [death] and use our anxieties to live more authentic, meaning-filled and purposeful lives.”

Consider ways you might use this exercise in your spiritual-ethical will.

• You may decide to include it just as it is, in your own handwriting (a powerful and unique way to be remembered), providing a snapshot for your loved ones of who you really are and what matters to you. It may include seeds for new blessings to plant for future generations.

• You may want it to be read by a loved one at your memorial service. It may suggest specific flowers you’d like at your grave site. For example, Vicki may want to have “fragrant springtime paper whites, freshly cut stately white tulips, white lilies and daisies” at her memorial service.

Reflect on your experience of the death and mourning rituals observed for your loved ones. Consider things you can do now to make those losses more emotionally or spiritually complete.

• How does the way death has been handled in your family or cultural group impact the choices you want to make regarding your own death?

Consider the significance of silence about death and dying.

• When does silence come from feelings and beliefs within you, and when from pressure from your family tradition and cultural habits?

• Are there death and dying situations when silence is preferable?

• What is the positive value of silence at a time of loss and grief?

• How has silence affected death practices in your life?

• What support do you need should you choose different rituals regarding your death?

• How can you include your preferences in your legacy document?

As habitual caretakers many women work tirelessly, hoping to deliver our loved ones from suffering and sadness. Until I went to Al-Anon, I had no clue about the impossibility of succeeding at this goal. Now I understand that our loved ones will be bereaved by our deaths, and they have the right, the need and the responsibility to mourn their loss. The grieving process involves re-constructing a relationship which allows for a continuing and changing bond with the deceased.

Consider the consequences to a culture that avoids and denies death. All of us are affected; each of us is personally wounded, stripped of integrity and wholeness. Deprived of speaking our grief, we fail to honor our bonds with our ancestors. Other results include taking our life and its preciousness for granted. We live with the pretense and the false hope of limitlessness. As a result we are prone to procrastinate. Where is the urgency to do anything if we live as if we have forever? We make healthcare about cure, not care. When there’s no cure, both the patient and the medical professionals fail. There’s no place for acceptance of the reality of bodily death nor appropriate preparation for it. We neglect decisions and plans for the end of life – including writing a spiritual-ethical will – cheating future generations of our blessings, love and wisdom.

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
Get It Together Now: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To

Also by Rachael Freed:
Breaking the Silence: Death through the Lens of Legacy
Creating a Legacy: Writing a Spiritual-Ethical Will

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 www.life-legacies.com 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: cote/Flickr Creative Commons

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