The Spiritual-Ethical Will: A Legacy Letter

People resonate with the themes, but find the term “ethical will” difficult. I began to refer to this document as the “spiritual-ethical will” and more recently as “legacy letters.” There are several key elements in a contemporary spiritual-ethical will.

First, it’s important to differentiate legacy writing from memoir or spiritual autobiography. Though the content may be similar, the intention for writing a spiritual-ethical will is to transmit love and learning to future generations. At the very core its purpose is to transform the ancient traditional instructions (what modern wants to be controlled from the grave?) into the more explicitly spiritual “blessings” for future generations. Central to this writing is the integration of the larger context of our times that shape us with our own personal experience and learning. (An example is a letter written in a legacy circle, one that meets these criteria and will be a treasure to the writer’s grandchildren.)

Andrew Weil MD, a physician widely respected in alternative medicine and in spiritual circles, promotes preparing an ethical will as a gift of spiritual health to leave to your family in his recent book, Healthy Aging, A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-Being. He also asserts that the ethical will’s “main importance is what it can give you in the midst of life.”

So what does the ethical will give us in the midst of life? While writing an ethical will links you to your history and future generations, clarifies your values, and communicates a legacy to those you love, it simultaneously addresses deep universal needs that we often don’t even realize we have. Legacy writing clarifies our identity and focuses our life purpose. These are the unexpected gifts received in the midst of life. Beyond them, six additional needs are addressed as we write our spiritual-ethical wills. They include our need to belong, to be known, to be remembered, to have our lives make a difference, to bless and be blessed, and to celebrate Life. No matter how difficult a person’s situation or circumstances, the gifts arrive invariably accompanied by hearty laughter and the sweet tears of amazement, gratitude, release, fullness, and a sense of peace.

I’ve observed these needs being nourished in people writing legacy letters in hospitals and religious communities; in work and retirement; with professionals, homemakers and corporate managers; with new parents, grandparents, seniors; with the aged, the ailing and the dying; with people of every age, of various ethnicities, faith traditions, economic and educational levels.

A physician friend, neighbor and colleague of mine began his ethical will work in earnest after a young chaplain approached him at a loss about how to help a young man dying in the hospice unit. Distraught, the man was sure that after his death there would be nothing of him left on earth, not even a memory. The physician explained the ethical will to the young chaplain and suggested that he visit the patient with pen and paper so he could write to someone. Later the chaplain told the physician that the one page letter had made all the difference. Writing it had significantly reduced the man’s anxiety and he’d died peacefully two days later. My friend is Barry K. Baines, M.D., whose book, Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, is a valuable guide.

While I was writing Women’s Lives, Women’s Legacies, I approached a social worker at the Minnesota Women’s Prison about doing a legacy writing series with the inmates. I wanted to be sure that what I was writing and teaching was universally applicable, not just for educated, privileged women. When I finished explaining why I thought legacy writing would be beneficial, she responded with great enthusiasm that she had “the perfect group” for me: “the lifers.” I was taken aback and truthfully more than a little frightened. I asked her why this group. She said that I’d talked about how much we all yearn to be remembered. This group was no exception in their need, she said, but in many cases their families never communicated or visited, actively worked to forget them, and even denied their existence. I facilitated legacy writing with these women for months; they found it healing; they felt reconnected to the human race, and their heartfelt legacies were moving and beautiful.

The spiritual-ethical will is a miraculous healing tool. More broadly, many of us realize that life is fragile, that we do not control the number of our days. We feel a sense of urgency to document our legacies to help shape this unfolding new world. As we fulfill the individual responsibility to preserve our values and love, we simultaneously participate in strengthening the fabric of our communities and culture. (Click here to see a powerful example: Barack Obama's letter to Malia and Sasha.)

May your spiritual-ethical will be an eternal link connecting you to generations past and yet unborn, and may all your legacies be blessings.

© 2009 Rachael Freed

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.

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