As we get older, we tend to understand the importance of having our affairs in order. We conscientiously prepare with wills, trusts and advanced care directives.
For 25 years, Rachael Freed has been encouraging people "in the second half of life" to think beyond their estates, heirs and health care. Freed exhorts them to contemplate their values and spell them out in what is known as an ethical will, or legacy letters.
A teacher, therapist and longtime senior fellow at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota, Freed, 83, has written six books about legacy sharing and has taught classes and workshops to help people contemplate and write their own ethical wills.
Sound intimidating? In a conversation with the Good Life, Freed insists that it's simpler — and more important — than you think.
Q: What is the basis of an ethical will?
A: The ethical will is an ancient and sacred tradition. It started in the Book of Genesis when Jacob was dying; he called together his 12 sons, blessed them and died.
In the 20th century rabbis rediscovered the concept, using the ethical will not just for blessing your children but also passing on your values. "Ethical will" is a scary term. I prefer "legacy letters."
Q: What should be in a legacy letter?
A: Nothing in it can be legally contested. That's not what it's for. It's a letter or, better yet, a series of letters from you to your family that identifies what's important to you. Legacy letters can also include apologies, family histories. Anything that tells about your values with the hope of educating the next generation.
Q: When should you write a letter like this?
A: Anytime! A legacy letter helps put order in our lives. Research about aging finds that this is a time when we gather our thoughts and make sense of our lives. As we start giving away our stuff, going through the house with each child and grandchild to identify which things they'll want when we're gone, we must also share our successes and regrets. We have a responsibility to pass on what we've experienced, our interests, priorities and passions.
Q: How do you get started?
A: Legacy writing can be simple. Set a timer for 15 minutes, pick a topic, be focused and write without interruption. Write one page, a few paragraphs, in your own voice. Don't worry about punctuation, grammar and vocabulary, let that go. Don't be scared off by not being an accomplished writer. Write your values, write your love.
I recommend writing the final version of the letter in your own hand. Otherwise the kids might say, my dad didn't write that, he must have gotten it out of a book.
Q: Is there a formula you recommend?
A: Legacy letters extract lessons from the lives we've lived. For my workshops I created a legacy letter template. It asks the writer to tell a story about something that happened to them that they learned from. The end of the letter involves passing on a blessing that came out of that experience.
Q: Can you give an example of a lesson like that from your own life?
A: I wrote my son and daughter a legacy letter about the summer when I was 22 and living in New York City. I was on the subway, minding my own business. A homeless woman sat down next to me with her two bags. I lowered my gaze and tightened my hold on my purse and she said, "Look at me, I'm a human being." I wrote about how that reminded me to be willing to see the humanity in others. That was the story. Then I wrote, "I wish compassionate eyes for you." That was the blessing.
Q: Can you suggest other topics worth tackling?
A: Write a letter that gives the history of your own grandparents as you knew them. Where they came from, the details of their lives that are just gone if you don't record them. Someday your readers will want more than the genealogy of dates and birth, death and marriage certificates.
Legacy writers also have an obligation to write about this time in their life, the advantages and the wonderful things about aging. It's a time of real power.
The hardest letter is your reflection on your own death. Write what you feel about dying, how you want to be remembered. A legacy letter is not a legal document, but I recommend attaching it to your advanced care directive. I've heard many people say, I feel at peace now that I've done this, I've said what [I] had to say.
Q: Any warnings or cautions for letter writers?
A: Remember how easy it is to be blind to our own imperfections.
Don't instruct your readers when you mean to bless them. It should feel like it's coming out of your heart, not your head. Read it aloud and listen to yourself.
There's only one thing I say not to do — don't write your anger. Many years from now, is that how you want to be remembered? Write your anger in your journal. Not in your legacy letter.
Q: Are legacy letters meant to be sent after the writer's death?
A: Some letters are in your top drawer, to be read after you've died. Some you give immediately, the love letters to your children and grandchildren as they graduate, get their first job, marry.
It's fine to send letters while you're alive. My son said to me, if you have wisdom to give, I don't want to wait until you're dead, I want it now.
Before sending the first letter I suggest you prepare your children. One woman who took my workshop mailed the letters to her kids out of the blue and they called in a panic, certain that she was dying.
Q: You say you've seen greater interest in legacy letters of late. What do you suspect is driving that?
A: The world is in huge transition at this moment. The pandemic made a lot of people think about what's important and we had time for contemplation when we were locked in. It also made us think about dying; any one of us might have ended up on a respirator.
I think about the people who died in the pandemic; I've long thought about those who died on 9/11 and their families who will grieve all their lives. What if they had left legacy letters for their children when they didn't come back?
None of us know when our time is up. That's why I say, write a letter now, when you have the physical and mental health to do it. You can start today.