Opinion: Share what matters most through your Legacy Letter, Hospice of St. Lawrence Valley board member says
Legacy Letters, also known as Ethical Wills, are ways to pass on your values, life lessons, hopes and words of appreciation to those who have touched your life.
As the name implies, this is usually accomplished with letters, but there are many ways to communicate your love, insights and words of thanks.Legacy Letters are often shared after one dies, but can be more poignant when shared in the present. However you wish to do it, the crafting of Legacy Letters can give you peace of mind that you have shared what matters most.
In this time of self-isolation with so many of us having more time on our hands than ever, the writing of Legacy Letters can make this time meaningful and provide needed perspective.
Examples of Legacy Letters can be found in the Bible and throughout history. There are many examples from wartime when those in service wrote to tell those they love why that love was so important and how someone has touched their lives in ways that they may have never known.
Many of us have written Legacy Letters for Mother’s Day or Father’s Day or on someone’s birthday. Any time is a good time to tell someone “Thanks” or “I love you.”
Though Legacy Letters are often used to express love and gratitude, they also can be used to share our core values and beliefs for future generations, to tell a story, for reconciliation, to outline future hopes or to explain the bequests you are making in a will. It is not a place for recrimination or to bring up old hurts or disputes.
Many years ago, I wrote a Legacy Letter to my father to thank him for the love and guidance that he had given to me over the years. It was heartfelt and the best gift I could send.
When I heard back from him, it was in the form of a letter from him sharing how much he had enjoyed being a father and what it had meant to him. He died in 2012 and that letter is one of my dearest possessions.
The other forms a Legacy Letter can take are a list of the values that have guided you, a photo album with stories included, a recipe collection of family favorites, a journal with observations and reflections, a collection of poems or quotes, personal essays or audio recordings.
No matter what format you use, the first thing to identify is who will be receiving this. It could be your spouse or partner, child or grandchild, a friend, your fifth-grade teacher or your former football coach. It could be directed to a single person or a group.
Then think about why it is important to you to share this letter. What will you gain? Peace of mind? A sense of completion? Perhaps simple happiness for sharing what has long been on your mind and in your heart.
Then think about what you want to express. As Ira Byock states in his book, The Four Things That Matter Most, it can be “I love you,” “thank you,” “I forgive you or please forgive me” (or a combination of these).
It can be the telling of a story of a life event that shaped you into who you are today. It can be the passing down of family lore or wishes for the future.
Be clear about the most important thing that you want to say.
If you want this person to know unequivocally that he or she profoundly affected your life for the good, be clear in stating that. This is not a time to be shy.
Finally, think about how you want your words to make him or her feel. Use that to guide you as you start your letter (or photo album, poem collection, audio recording, etc.).
Once you get started, you may find that the words just flow. But getting started may be the hardest part. Here are some prompts to help you:
• I may not have always shown it, but…
• When I think of the future, I like to imagine…
• There are a few things that I want you to remember about me and our life together…
• The most important lessons that I have learned from life are…
• I am most grateful for…
• I have always admired the way that you…
• There are many stories in our family, but these are the ones that I want to be sure to write down and share…
You can make an outline or simply begin to craft your letter.
There is no wrong or right way to a Legacy Letter. It is your personal expression of love and gratitude and, as such, as unique as you.
It can be a paragraph, two pages or a scrapbook filled with photos and recipes. The important thing is to get started.
The process of creating a Legacy Letter is powerful and meaningful - for you and those that receive it.
Each of us, living our ordinary lives, have lives that matter. Share what matters most to you with others through your Legacy Letter.
There are many wonderful resources about how to create Legacy Letters. Some of my favorites are So Grows the Tree by Jo Kline Cebuhar, J.D. and Nothing Left Unsaid by Mary Polce-Lynch, Ph.D. These and other resources can be found at the website for Hospice of St. Lawrence Valley.
Hospice of St. Lawrence Valley board member