Leaving a Legacy: Spiritual-Ethical Wills

By Rachael Freed, LICSW, LMFT
Several years ago I presented my 5-year-old granddaughter, Sophie, with a blank book, a granddaughter-grandmother journal. This journal, I explained, was just for us. She wouldn't have to share it with any of the other grandchildren. Each time we were together we would write or draw in our special journal, then we'd put it away in a secret place in my writing room. Because Sophie wasn't writing yet, I would be the scribe and she could decide what we would write about. When she was a little older, we would share responsibility for the writing.

Sophie's eyes sparkled as we looked excitedly at all the blank pages. She picked out a pink marker, printed her name on the first page, and beautified it with a heart or two. Witnessing the birth of a natural journal writer, I imagined the wonderful events, thoughts and feelings that would fill this record of our relationship. As Sophie looked up at me with her innocent, dark eyes, she happily exclaimed, "Oh, I get it, Granny! Then when you're dead I'll know everything that we did together."

She got it! My eyes filled with tears, my heart with the bittersweet reality of love and death - the truth she so easily understood and accepted. One day she would have our special journal, and I wouldn't be here to enjoy her anymore.

Documenting a legacy addresses a deep need to be remembered, a need we all share. It implies an awareness of mortality, an acknowledgment that one day we will no longer be alive. This is a difficult certainty to confront. Yet throughout history, women have cared for the dying, comforted mourners and laid out the dead. Our intimacy with birth and death makes us part of a worldwide community of women who greet these wonders with love and awe. Above all, it teaches us that death, like life, is precious and sacred. Legacy writing is an opportunity to honor our death as well as our life, clearly communicating how we want to be remembered. We can express idiosyncratic wishes related to our death, funeral and burial, and we can ask our families to honor these wishes. In Genesis, where the ethical will originated, Jacob first blessed his sons and then instructed them to return his body to his ancestors' burial place:

"I am about to be gathered to my kin. Bury me with my fathers in the cave which is in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave which is in the field of Machpelah, facing Mamre, in the land of Canaan, the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite for a burial site - there Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah - the field and the cave in it, bought from the Hittites." When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people. (Gen.49:29-33)

Because none of us knows when and under what circumstances our end will come, it's imperative that we document our preferences and instructions while we are of sound mind. In the following pages we will examine how we want to be remembered, then we'll organize our instructions for our survivors. For those who are overwhelmed at the thought of putting their affairs in order, completing this chapter will bring a welcome sense of relief. Naturally, the decisions you make today may change over time. As you update these sections of your spiritual-ethical will, you might keep a record of your writings to document your personal growth.

Here are three suggestions from the chapter to stimulate your reflection and writing:

• A dramatic way to clarify how we want to be remembered by others is to consider what we've valued most about life on Earth. This perspective awakens our gratitude to the abundant blessings in our lives, making the most mundane details seem sacred. Consider what you have taken for granted. Make a list of what you will miss.

• Imagine that you could take a snapshot of your life at this very moment. What would you see? How would others remember you? More importantly, how would you hope to be remembered?

• Many women embrace traditional family or ethnic rituals, imbuing them with personal meaning. Others create their own death rituals, hoping to distance themselves from traditions that no longer provide solace or support. Describe the rituals that are meaningful to you, and express your reason for wanting to be remembered in these ways. Write about rituals that you definitely want or don't want your loved ones to use when celebrating your life or memorializing your death. You may want to write over time to make these decisions.

Excerpted from Chapter 10: On Death and Dying, "Women's Lives, Women's Legacies," a guide to creating a spiritual-ethical will as a legacy to pass to future generations, by Rachael Freed.

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

Also by Rachael Freed:
Breaking the Silence: Death through the Lens of Legacy
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 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: L_Dan/Flickr Creative Commons

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