You enter a solemn space where a eulogy is about to be delivered. Turns out that eulogy is for you.
What do you hope is said?
It’s a daunting question, one most of us would rather ignore. But there are compelling reasons to plow in and consider answers, as I did at a morning seminar last week.
I was there for work, mostly. Beginning Wednesday at sundown, Jews around the world begin a 10-day period of self-reflection that includes our humbling plea for forgiveness from those we’ve hurt. As always, I have my work cut out.
Yet, reflection — and regret — are not unique to one faith group, which is why I see value in embracing “legacy letters.”
Also called ethical wills, these letters are not legal documents. They are not a laundry list of who gets Mom’s china and Dad’s jade elephant.
They are personal outpourings to the people we love, sharing in letter form our values and hopes, sorrows and mistakes, gratitude and wisdom.
They are us at our most real and raw.
And interest in them is growing, said Barry Baines, a Twin Cities-based family doctor specializing in hospice and palliative medicine.
While hospice is a logical setting for legacy letters, Baines has been contacted by churches, financial services organizations and community foundations, all wanting to help their members live more meaningful lives in the present.
“People are looking for purpose,” said Baines, co-owner of Celebrations of Life (celebrationsoflife.net), which offers workshops and resources for people wishing to consider, or create, their legacy.
“When they express their gratitude, they’re happier and more productive,” he said. “They tend to live more intentionally. Everything I read continues to reinforce the work we’re doing.”
He came to this concept as much personally as professionally.
In 1990, his father was diagnosed with cancer. Baines suggested that he write a reflective letter to his children.
“Why would I do that?” asked his Depression-era dad. A month before his father died, Baines received that longed-for letter. It is just seven paragraphs long, single-spaced — a heartfelt missive from a simple working man who believed in honesty, truthfulness and family.
“To this date, it is the most cherished possession I have from him,” said Baines, who, in 1999, founded the website ethicalwill.com to offer others the same cathartic experience.
Legacy letters can be informal handwritten thoughts on blank sheets of paper, or typewritten and formal, utilizing structure and a list of questions. They’re all fine, as long as we pick one and “do it,” Baines said.
He spoke this month at an event sponsored by the Minneapolis and St. Paul chapters of Hadassah, an American Jewish women’s volunteer organization. While his groups are mostly female, he’s struck by the depth to which men go in their legacy letters, when they are ready.
“In some ways, they are the most powerful,” he said.
The most heartbreaking, though, are written by those wise beyond the years they’ll count.
“During the time of my illness, I have loved more deeply,” writes a 29-year-old woman dying from cancer, her legacy letter shared by Baines. “I do not carry anger. I feel we are all doing the best we can. Judging others closes the heart and, when one is dying, that is a waste of precious sharing.”
Baines always places boxes of tissue on each table.
Illness is not the only impetus for writing. World events, such as the 2001 terrorist attacks, or a tsunami, trigger interest, Baines said, as these are times that remind us “that no one is promised tomorrow.” Milestones, such as births or weddings, are also popular.
Event participant Deborah Luther wrote her first legacy letter to her two soon-to-be stepdaughters, just before her wedding to their father. “I typed the letter and gave a copy to both girls with their name on it,” said Luther, 61, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Minnetonka.
“My dream was for us to have a peaceful transition, and I hoped that, over time, we would come to love each other. But, if not, we would show each other respect and we would be kind.”
Soon after, she crafted a letter to her older son as he headed to college. “I wrote that I hoped he would remember where he came from and also that the one thing you cannot buy is a good name. Cherish that, because no one can take that from you,” she told him.
Legacy letters are but one form of “life review,” said Michele Hodgson, volunteer coordinator for Sholom Johnson Hospice in St. Paul. Her program, which serves people of all beliefs, pairs volunteers with patients for therapeutic storytelling.
Hodgson, a former journalist and longtime hospice volunteer, has worked on various life review projects with patients, including a World War II veteran who created a detailed photo album, a woman with a brain tumor who published a book of poetry and a man with lung cancer who, with her help, crafted his memoir with just weeks to live.
“It is healing to have someone listen to and witness what matters to you,” she said, adding that life reviews also benefit families. “When you are grieving, you need to tell the story of who you’ve loved and why.”
It’s never too soon to begin. So let’s. What is something you learned from your parents? Something you learned from experience? What is a life lesson you’d like to pass on, and a regret you’d like to address? What are you most grateful for? What will you miss the most? What do you want said at your funeral?
And one more question: Do you feel better already?