Post 12: Legacy Work and the Five Senses
Updated: May 16
"She picked out her favorite music. I blended her music with the fetal heart sounds of her grandchild. She talked about how much she wanted to meet her first grandchild and that at least she would have her music to gift if she didn't get that chance." The palliative care music therapist paused. "I don't remember her ever mentioning being in pain during our session."
The process of translating thoughts of what a person wants to leave behind in the world into actions to make that happen is called "legacy work," sometimes also referred to as a legacy project. A person could work on a legacy project at any stage in life. They do not have to have an end stage disease to act on an urge to create something that will last beyond them.
A legacy project can be anything they wish it to be. It can be anything that represents how they view themselves as mattering in the world.
The burdens of legacy work may include taking up limited time, using up limited hours of alertness, depleting limited stamina or energy, or creating a sense of yet another obligation to add to a person's To Do list.
A person should work on a legacy project when benefits outweigh the burdens. What are potential benefits of legacy work?
1. Legacy work can act as a coping tool for a person experiencing rough times at any stage in life.
2. Legacy work can serve as a positive distraction and provide symptom relief and increase motivation and energy.
3. Legacy work may result in a person finding new purpose.
4. Legacy work may result in a person finding meaning in their illness or better accepting their transition to a different stage in life.
5. Legacy work may validate a life and increase a person's sense of meaning and self worth as they reflect on who they are as a person, their accomplishments, and what is most important to them.
6. Legacy work may enable the expressions of feelings and thoughts that are otherwise too emotionally distressing or too cognitively difficult to express.
7. Legacy items that loved ones can read, see, hear, smell, touch, or taste may bring comfort to loved ones as they grieve.
8. Legacy items may evoke a sense of connection among generation past, present, and future.
Anything that resonates with a person can become their legacy work. The following are examples of legacy projects, which I divided into the five senses as suggested by former palliative care colleagues Erin Nielsen, LCSW and Angela Wibben, MM, MT-BC.
Make memorabilia such as a blanket sewn together from favorite T shirts, pillow from favorite shirts or blankets, memory bear, or photo blanket.
Make keepsakes with fingerprints, handprint tracings or molds, or locks of hair.
Dedicate jewelry, watch, or sentimental belongings.
Record reflections from your life or stories from multiple generations.
Record an ethical will. An ethical will or legacy letter is not a legal document, and rather an expression of what matters most in your life. Common themes include personal values, spiritual values, hopes and blessings for future generations, life's lessons, expressions of love, expressions of forgiveness, and requests for forgiveness.
Record yourself reading favorite passages or singing your favorite songs.
Write music, a song, or poem.
Create a soundtrack to your life.
Curate a collection of scented candles or perfumes that evoke memories of special events and people important in your life.
Put together a book of your favorite recipes and the recipes you are known for, perhaps with stories associated with certain foods such as those that are a tradition in your family.
Create a piece of art or dedicate art of sentimental value.
Engrave a piece of jewelry or watch.
Have a professional photo shoot of you and your "tribe," whether they be family or close friends.
Create a montage of personal video recordings or of your favorite movie scenes.
Create a photobook, perhaps with written or recorded stories associated with the photos.
Put together a collection of significant scriptures or meaningful quotes.
Create a scrapbook of special memories, a favorite destination, or of a person.
Create a family tree, with or without photos.
Write cards or letters for future life milestones, such as birthdays, meaningful holidays, graduation, marriage, the birth of a child.
Write reflections from your life or stories from multiple generations (a family memoir).
Write an ethical will or legacy letter, which is an expression of what matters most to you such as personal values, hopes, and lessons learned.
Common life review questions a person may consider while completing legacy work include the following:
What about you has remained true despite the rough times?
What are your most important values?
What are you most proud of?
What are you most hopeful for?
What advice or learned lessons do you wish to share?
If a person starts a legacy project when their disease is advanced or their illness is critical, they may weaken too rapidly to complete the project. It may be more realistic to try to accomplish a small project within a short period of time. It may even be enough for a person to simply vocalize their intention of starting legacy work, giving them a sense of purpose at the time. Having started or participated in a family tradition can be a person's legacy.
Whether a person leaves behind a tangible or documented item, they themselves have already created a legacy by living (Read Post 11: An Unintentional Legacy).