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  • Jeanne Lee

Post 90: A Legacy Letter Can Be a Treasure Trove

A palliative care social worker once commented to me, “You know what I hear most often when I suggest legacy projects?...‘I wish I’d known about these much sooner.’”

A person’s legacy is any part of them that others will remember even when they are no longer with them. It may be the way this person used to laugh or what made them laugh. It may be their life mantra – We GET to do this, not we HAVE to do this – or their pet peeves (“Turn off the lights if you’re the last to leave the room!”).

You yourself may not realize a profound impression you are unintentionally making at any given moment (read Post 11: An Unintentional Legacy).

Of course, some of us may want to leave a part of ourselves that is tangible, and a legacy letter is one of many examples of a legacy project (read Post 12: Legacy Work and the Five Senses). A legacy letter, also called an ethical will, is a personal letter that relays whatever you want to communicate to loved ones who succeed you.

Your loved ones may read this letter at a time when they are grieving their loss, at a time when they are memorializing or celebrating you, or perhaps at a time when they are sharing memories of you to younger generations. It may be a series of letters, multiple letters each addressed to different individuals, or a single letter. Your letter may come with pictures or mementos!

Though the legacy letter can convey anything you wish, it typically is not an extensive factual account of life events, such as in a memoir or autobiography.

The legacy letter more often contains any of the following:

- one’s hopes

- one’s wishes

- one’s values

- one’s beliefs

- lessons learned

- words of wisdom

- sweet memories or key moments in life

- personal reflections on what gives life meaning

- reflections on important relationships

- one’s personal characteristics or accomplishments they are particularly proud of

- facts of interest they think will be helpful for the reader(s)

- favorite quotes or scriptures and why these are so meaningful to them

- requests for forgiveness

- expressions of regret and lessons learned from things regretted

- expressions of gratitude

- expressions of love

- how one wants to be remembered

One may reflect on what is driving them to write this letter, and consider including the thoughts or sentiments behind this motivation. Depending on their health condition, which may include knowing one's prognosis (read Post 15: What’s My Heaven ETA? – The Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How in Asking About Prognosis), they may consider major milestones they might miss and for which they might want to impart advice or blessings.

Writing - or dictating if we are physically unable to write or type - a legacy letter can be done at any point in our lives, perhaps even adding addendums with subsequent life changes. It may give some of us a sense of purpose at a time when we are trying to find meaning in illness (read Post 72: A Sense of Purpose – 3 Suggestions for Regaining it When Illness Has Taken It Away), when we are trying to renew or strengthen connection with our loved ones, or when we are struggling to verbally express strongly felt emotions and ideas.

Though some may be advised to “simply write what’s in your heart,” writing stream of consciousness is often difficult for many people. If this is the case for you, it is okay to execute the writing process step by step, for example from outline to notes to first draft to subsequent drafts. Some people may then want to handwrite a final draft on beautiful stationary while others may want to type and print the final draft on personalized letterhead.

After completion, the legacy letter can be kept with other important documents such as one’s will to be read after their death. Or one may designate a loved one to hold onto the legacy letter, who would then read or distribute copies of the letter at a designated time, before or after their death.

You do not have to follow a standard path. You yourself can decide when, where, and how your loved ones would receive your legacy letter.


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