The Gift of a Lifetime

Color your leaf on the family tree

Two years ago I lost a friend and colleague. Virginia’s death was sudden, without warning. She had been feeling great and we were making plans to move to a wonderful new office location. We looked at the space on Friday afternoon and planned to finalize the deal on Monday but by Sunday she was gone.

Virginia knew my penchant for personal histories and she and I had talked several times about the importance of leaving a legacy, particularly since she had a new grandchild she adored. She fully intended to get started on her life stories as soon as time allowed—but time ran out and she left us with her stories untold. My heart ached as I watched her grief-stricken husband search in vain for a journal or any personal notes she might have written and I felt deep regret that I hadn’t encouraged her more.

Sometimes people procrastinate because they don’t know where to start. After all, you have lived for a long time—how do you take all those years and distill them to their essence? I believe an ethical will is the answer.

Unlike a last will or trust, an ethical will is not a legally binding document. Rather than money or possessions, an ethical will bequeaths values, beliefs, ideals and instructions. Ethical wills are an ancient tradition that are seeing a resurgence in popularity as people want to find a way to leave their loved ones with their values in addition to their valuables. You may also hear them referred to as “Memory Memos” “Legacy Letters” or other such titles. I think of them as a love letter to your family and friends.

Ethical wills assume a variety of forms, from a short letter in your own handwriting to a lengthy autobiographical statement. Some people write whole books. If you want your messages to be in your own voice, you can audio or video record them. Every ethical will is as unique as the person preparing it but there are similar themes that run through many of them. Here are examples of some common inclusions:

  • Important personal values and beliefs
  • Important spiritual values
  • Hopes and blessings for future generations
  • Life lessons learned and instructions for life
  • Family stories
  • Expressions of love
  • Remembering joys and milestones
  • Forgiving others and asking for forgiveness
  • Burial and funeral preferences

In his book, Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper, Dr. Barry Baines talks about how meaningful and comforting his father’s written words to him were after the elder had died. He tells a story about an agitated hospice patient who greatly feared he would be forgotten after his death. Thinking it might help, Dr. Baines suggested the man prepare a written record of his thoughts to leave to his family and the patient eagerly agreed. Baines writes, “As soon as he was done [writing his ethical will], this feeling that there would never be a trace of him on this earth completely disappeared. Here he was feeling that he was truly leaving a legacy for his family and the future. It was at that point that I became the instant expert on ethical wills. Everyone was very impressed by the power of this very simple document.”

Only you can tell your story so please don’t put it off any longer. When you create your ethical will you are literally leaving your loved ones with the gift of a lifetime.

Food for thought:

    1. What are the things that I want my children/grandchildren to know about me that I haven’t told them?
    2. Have I left something unsaid that needs to be said to someone important to me?
    3. What is the single most important lesson I’ve learned in life that I want to share with others?
    4. How do I most want to be remembered by people who will come after me?

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