“End Tables. I Have Just Two Words, End Tables.”

At a meeting of community business leaders I attended a few weeks ago, we were asked to share our business cards. I looked in my bag and saw that I had only two cards with me. (No, not very professional of me to not even think about checking to see if I had cards with me before I left. Really?)

I took out the two cards I had and then, after a brief pause, also shared some of our book’s business cards. (Yes, our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home has its very own business card).

The book’s card is a bit busy on the front with a photo of the book cover and information on how to access the book and the blog. The back is more serene, with a black-and-white rendering of our logo, the house, with our mantra “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff…” below it.

I think it was the back of the card that started the discussion.

The conversation that ensued sounded a bit like our own discussion of “keepers and throwers.” “Throwers” relish clearing out and will empty a house quickly; “keepers” want to preserve special things as well as memories, and will linger over the process.

People are usually more nuanced than those labels imply and both “keepers” and “throwers” have issues that need to be dealt with. What followed with our small group was an interesting discussion of the what and the how of emptying our parents’ homes.

Tim looked at our business card and said, “End tables. All I have to say is two words: end tables.” He is a “keeper” with a lot of sentimentality to deal with, along with a strong dose “but someone could use this.” He had carefully emptied his parents’ home but had difficulty parting with the last few things. He had divvied up the family items, sold furniture, and donated many household items. He had two beautiful end tables with an inlaid wood design. His kids didn’t want them. And we all agreed that Millennials don’t want much of what we have and they certainly don’t want furniture that belonged to their grandparents. Tim couldn’t sell the end tables and wasn’t ready yet to donate them because he thought they were too beautiful to part with. Why didn’t someone else see them the way he saw them, their beauty, their value, he asked in a voice tinged somewhat with regret.

Phil is a more pure form of “thrower.” He said he had emptied his parents’ home, giving some items to nieces and nephews who were just starting out and getting rid of the rest. You could almost see him washing his hands of the job. He had been thorough and the job was done.

Jamie seemed poised between a “keeper” and a “thrower.” She embodies what we say in our book: “People who balance these attributes have come to the realization that the most valuable thing in a house is the life that has been lived there.” She had emptied her childhood home when her parents moved to a retirement condo, then emptied the condo when her parents passed away. She donated most of the stuff, sold a few things, and preserved her family treasures in archival containers. She was able to identify what was important to her and she kept those items for herself, and for the next generation.

Matt kept quiet during our discussion. Whatever his story is, he chose to keep it private and we respected that.

Amy was somewhat wide-eyed during our talk. She is a little younger and hasn’t started yet to dismantle a home. My hope is that she absorbed the many hints and tips, along the laments, about the process of downsizing and will store them away for a time when she will need them.

Luca was visiting from Italy and seemed a bit baffled by Americans talking so much about their parents’ possessions. His puzzled look seemed to say that this consuming-so-much then wondering-what-to-do-with-it is a distinctly American dilemma.

At our business meeting, the meet-and-greet part at the beginning became a dialogue about downsizing – about “Keeping the memories, getting rid of the stuff…” – because I forgot to bring my business cards with me. It was fortuitous, a chance to share our stories with complete strangers, a wonderful opportunity.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Keeping Memories and Sharing Wisdom: Writing a Legacy Letter

Amy Paul, president of Heirloom Words, is a former corporate attorney who switched careers to work in the non-profit world. She was Executive Director of two non-profit organizations that assisted older individuals. She has a Geriatric Scholar Certificate from the Consortium of NY Geriatric Education Centers and is a trained as a mediator. Amy has been devoted to community improvement projects all her life.

 

I met Amy when I attended one of her workshops and was eager to learn more about her take on sharing your wisdom and values with your family members.

 

Linda: So Amy, let’s start with the obvious: What is a Legacy Letter? What is an Ethical Will? Are they the same and, if not, what are the differences?

Amy: The term, Ethical Will, is a writing tradition in which the author expresses his/her life wisdom, love and life values with a loved one with the intention that it serve as a future guide, inspiration and support. The term recognizes the historical genesis of this practice, which comes from the Old Testament and was carried forward in the New Testament. The term, Legacy Letter, serves the same function as the Ethical Will, but is conceived outside any particular religious or historical foundation.

A Legacy Letter is a written document in which your life lessons, wisdom, family history and love are conveyed as a guide and source of comfort to your loved ones as a legacy for future generations.

Linda: How did you get interested in this and what was your path to your current enterprise?

Amy: I have worked as an advocate on behalf of older individuals for over 10 years. In addition, I was a caregiver for my elderly parents. As my parents got older, I drew upon my experience with older individuals and activities that they enjoyed, and I engaged my father in writing his memoir. This proved to be an uplifting experience for my dad and my family received the memoir as a ‘treasure’ for themselves and future generations. I started to research into both memoir and alternative options that could offer similar benefits. That’s when I learned about Ethical Wills/Legacy Letters.

Linda: You mentioned the history of Ethical Wills is religious. Is writing a Legacy Letter a relatively new phenomenon or have people been writing them for ages and it’s just new to those of us who weren’t familiar with them?

Amy: Ethical Wills were a strong tradition for hundreds of years in western society, but it was lost as a common practice in the most recent centuries. The practice has recently been revived, in part because current social science research strongly suggests that it offers benefits to both the author and the recipient.

Linda: How do you start a letter? What should your aim be?

Amy: As a starting point, I suggest you decide to whom you wish to write, and if you will write one letter to your entire family or you will write a different letter to each individual. That decision will help you to think about how to write the letter.

Linda: Sometimes in my talks about downsizing and end-of-life issues, I suggest that people make a simple letter listing which possessions are important to them, such as a piece of jewelry, a painting, or grandmother’s china, explain what the item means to them, and why they want it to go to a particular person in their life. It seems easier to me to begin with an object and work towards an emotion then to delve into emotions at the start. When you teach your workshops, what are some tips you give for starting a letter to those who are reluctant to write one? Or have trouble starting one?

Amy: If people have trouble starting to write, I encourage them to review their own values/life priorities before they start writing. Typically, I distribute select ‘memory prompts’ and ‘values prompts’ to help them start writing on a blank page. Some people use the technique of mind mapping, too. A mind map is a diagram used to visually organize information. The map is hierarchical and shows relationships among pieces of the whole.

People who are downsizing, as you mention, and facing an impact on their memories by getting rid of items, might be especially helped by writing a Legacy Letter as something tangible to hold onto.

In addition, I encourage folks to think about some of their favorite music, books, and movies to see if there are particular common themes or values that resonant within these cultural memories. In this regard, I often have some ‘interview time’ with them to discuss the life lessons that have made them who they are. This kind of reminiscing helps folks to get started.

There is no right or wrong way to do this, it involves whatever gets you thinking about the life lessons and values that have brought meaning to your life.

Linda: How important is a Legacy Letter? What is its purpose? How should we as the writer of one see ourselves and see the task?

Amy: Writing Legacy Letter is an act of love, a means of conveying that love and caring into the recipient’s future and for future generations. It is an inheritance more valuable than money.

Linda: Since women, now as well as historically, are the keepers of stuff and the passers-on of memories, I was wondering if most of the people who attend your workshops and engage your help in writing a Legacy Letter are women? If so, what are your thoughts on getting more men involved in the process.

Amy: That’s a great question. Most of the people interested in this topic appear to be women. That said, I was invited and gave a talk to a group of semi-retired/retired men, a total of about 75 people, last year and their response was very positive.

Overall, I have had about an average of 25 percent men in the talks thus far and those who attend seem extremely interested in making an Ethical Will. Often they attend because their wives encourage them to attend the session together. But, I think that my numbers are largely due to the fact that women are more easily accessed for me. That is, my contacts come from and through community groups – religious groups, senior programs, organizational groups – and those tend to be largely women. So, I don’t have any greater insight into this, i.e. why do women seek out information through community and why do they seek out socialization through community?

But men have written books on Ethical Wills. See especially Barry Baines’ Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper. Baines, along with Jack Riemer, are strongly associated with the modern advent of Ethical Wills.

Linda: What are the benefits to the writer of a Legacy Letter? What are the benefits to the recipient of a Legacy Letter?

Amy: Both the author and recipient of a Legacy Letter attain important benefits by writing a Legacy Letter, which Dr. Andrew Weill has said is a ‘spiritual gift of well being.’ The author can get a broad sense of the meaning of his/her life and the values that were meaningful. In addition, the author can give or get forgiveness as well as get a sense of existence beyond mortality, each offering important closure on what may be festering concerns. Writing a Legacy Letter is a profoundly satisfying experience. It is a life-affirming way to express and embrace your life experience.

For recipients, benefits include a sense of being loved, inspiration for difficult times, an enhanced personal identity, and hope for the future. Legacy Letters also help recipients to keep the spirit of a loved one strong as a source of comfort in the future.

There is a fair amount of research about writing ethical wills and on the importance of reminiscence therapy, of which life review like this is one activity.

Linda: When do you give the letter to the recipient? Or do you leave it with your will for them to read after you have passed on?

Amy: While these documents (and they can be in audio or video tape form as well) are often part of estate papers, they are also given on life milestones like graduations, 21st birthdays, and other occasions.

Linda: Is there a way to see samples of Legacy Letters?

Amy: You can check the Internet for examples. Also, there are many books that include a sampling of Ethical Wills and Legacy Letters, such as the Barry Baines’ book mentioned above. But, please remember that these Letters are most powerful to the intended recipient, within the context of the relationship. Sometimes, outside the relationship of the writer/recipient the Letters might read like a typical or ordinary story; however, within the relationship when the love and caring are personally brought into the reading of the letter it becomes a most powerful document.

Linda: Why write a Legacy Letter? What is the most compelling reason to write a letter to your family or friends?

Amy: In this digital and highly mobile age, we may find ourselves having fewer and fewer human conversations and know less about our family histories and values. Yet, human contact and family connectedness is an important foundation for life. The Legacy Letter is a vehicle to help preserve this human connectedness and, in many instances if provided during the author’s lifetime, can serve to open impactful conversation on a wide array of topics between author and recipient. One need not be wealthy to leave this legacy – it is truly an inheritance more valuable than money.

Thank you, Amy.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

 

Downsizing Dilemmas: Who Gets What

After a recent talk I gave about downsizing, the questions turned toward issues about how to work with siblings in sharing family items, some of the items real treasures. A woman shared a story and asked for advice. The story made me think of other stories I’ve heard or witnessed over the years since writing Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home and I thought I would share a few of them with you today (with all names changed).

Mary and her sister cleaned out the family home after her mother’s death more than 25 years ago. There were many paintings, portraits painted by a relative who was a portrait painter. Two were very large, one each of her parents. At the time, no one seemed to want them. Mary took them, somewhat as a favor and because she didn’t want to let them go, but also because she had the room in her house for them. Other family members took various other family items. In the years since, Mary’s daughters have talked among themselves as to who would get which portrait. One daughter recently bought a house and was hoping to get a portrait to hang in her house now, rather than waiting to inherit it from her mother. Seemingly out of the blue, Mary’s sister called and said her daughter had purchased a house and could Mary give her the portrait of their mother for her new house. Mary said her first reaction was to say that all that had been decided years ago. She and her daughters assumed that the portraits were Mary’s and Mary would decide what to do with them. Mary asked us what we thought she should do.

Betty inherited from her parents a diamond pin that had belonged to her grandmother. It was one of just a few of her grandmother’s possessions because, due to circumstances near of the end of her grandmother’s life, there was nothing else that was kept. Betty, who has two daughters, wears the pin very infrequently and had thought to have it appraised. But she’s afraid that if she finds out that the pin is actually worth a lot of money that she will have to sell it and share the money with her cousin who could use the money. Her cousin doesn’t know of the existence of the pin. Rather than have it appraised, Betty keeps the pin safely tucked away in her jewelry box. She wonders what she should do, what is the right thing to do, in these circumstances.

Connie is one of three sisters and she and one of her sisters helped clean out their father’s house after he died. They took a few items but donated most of them to charity. They kept some items that weren’t spoken for but that they didn’t want to part with. The third sister came to town later and asked for a pair of silver candlesticks that had belonged to their grandparents. Connie liked the candlesticks, but then Connie liked many of the old items in the house. She had taken more than enough for herself and her family. When her sister asked for the candlesticks, Connie hesitated just long enough for her sister to say, okay, you take them. Connie took them but then regretted it. She wanted her sister to have them. So she called her sister and told her that. Her sister said I don’t want them now, you should have given them to me when I asked for them. Connie feels bad but also feels that her sister is acting like a spoiled child. So the candlesticks sit on a shelf in Connie’s living room.

Families are complicated.

Years ago, the New York Times ran an article about two brothers, professional men, who had successfully divided up their father’s estate according to his will. Neither one of them needed the money so it was all done amicably. But then there was their father’s guitar. Rather than read them a bedtime story, their father had sung them a song every night. To the brothers, it represented the essence of their father, his talent, and his love. Both wanted the guitar. The brothers stopped talking, as I recall from the article, and communicated only through their lawyers, as to who would get the guitar.

There must be ways to work successfully on downsizing a family home so that each of the siblings feels they have been heard and seen. We have discussed some of those ways in our book.

But what about the answers to each of the specific cases above? How would you respond? We would love to hear what you would do. Leave us your sage words in a comment in the comment box.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Emptying a Family Home: A Wellspring of Emotion

Memories of 9822 

Last month, the New York Times ran a wonderful eight-day series in their Opinionator column, titled “The Task.”

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist, former Times columnist–and a supremely graceful and sensitive writer–is the author of the series. In it she describes in great detail, with honesty and candor, the deeply emotional and difficult process of dismantling her parents’ home after the death of her father. Step by step she walks her readers through the myriad decisions that needed to be made as she and her brother went through mountains of accumulated “stuff”—54 file drawers in her father’s office alone!  Along the way she explains and indeed shows just how and why these decisions are not so easy to make, and shares the memories and emotions—some beautiful and poignant, some painful—evoked in the process.

Almost as interesting as the posts themselves are the comments published in response to the series, and the conversations it has engendered. So far, more than 800 readers have responded. The vast majority of them express sympathy and solidarity with what Judson was going through; a few advised her to just pitch everything into a dumpster; others warned her not to throw things out too quickly, and some gave helpful suggestions about what to do with some of the things. Quite a few vowed not to leave their children with such a task. Most simply shared their own similar experiences, memories of childhood homes (several very interesting comments recount the prominent role of childhood homes in dreams), dread of going through this process themselves one day, or appreciation of the rewarding discoveries that come along with the drudgery.

Quite a few readers said they were moved to tears while reading Judson’s essays. For me one of the most moving comments was one in which the respondent confessed he had found himself crying as he read, adding “No idea why.”

What was very clear to me in reading this series was that no matter how much we might wish that the process of emptying a beloved home of everything in it could be straightforward and rational, a logistical task that simply requires organizing and executing the transfer of objects from one place to another (or rather, others), it is anything but either simple or straightforward. It is complex and deeply emotional, and for many of us it is heartbreaking in ways we can hardly fathom.

In the final essay Judson tells how she follows the advice of a friend to choose a “memory stone” to help her through the final goodbye to her childhood home. I won’t attempt to retell the story for her: you can read the entire series here, and I recommend that you do read it, essay by essay, in order.

It’s a wonderful tribute to both the beauty and the pain of what one of my favorite poets, James A. Emanuel, referred to as “this load that makes us human.”  And though each of us has to find our own way of saying goodbye to the past, in listening to the stories of how others have done it we can find helpful guidance, and the comforting knowledge that we are not alone.

Janet Hulstrand is a writer/editor,  writing coachtravel blogger, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

What I Learned…

book gift

My neighbor died recently at the age of 97½ and in mourning with her family, here’s what I learned. Maybe I had actually learned all this earlier in my life – or should have, anyway – and just needed to be reminded of it again.

Appreciate your family.

My neighbor’s nieces greeted everyone after the funeral and were as gracious as can be. Their appreciation for their aunt – her life and her beliefs and her interests – was so clearly evident. How many of us will keep extended family so much a part of our lives?

Keep your friends close.

Two of my neighbor’s friends, woman of advanced years as well, went to high school with her and live in the same apartment building. How amazing is that! How many of us will keep high school friends well into our 90s? What a testament to friendship.

Make new friends.

Although we were decades apart in age, my neighbor and I shared a love of books and we often discussed what we were reading. How many of us will make an effort to make new friends when we are in our late 80s?

Share with others.

My neighbor was always giving me books – or sometimes just lending them to me – and donating jewelry to an annual sale that I run for charity. Can we all start giving away our things now, to those who appreciate the items, rather than wait for later?

Stuff is just stuff.

At the estate sale, my neighbor’s stuff was just stuff. What seeing the things did, though, was prompt stories from people who knew her. We were all keeping – and sharing – the memories as we let the stuff go. Can we all remind ourselves that these things are all just things and that what matters most is the people in our lives?

We learned some of these lessons, and more, when we were interviewing people for our book Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, which will be available soon – very soon – as an e-book. Stay tuned!

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Getting Help After a Death

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It happens to each of us, sadly, at some point. We have to sort through and dispose of an entire household after losing a loved one.

Where do we start? What’s the best way of dealing with the stuff? Who can we ask to help?

We looked to several fellow bloggers for advice as well as to our own experiences and those of the people we interviewed in our book Moving On. Here’s the best of what we found.

Take your time.

Lisa Montanaro in her post Organizing After the Loss of a Loved One, emphasizes taking one’s time. “After the death of a loved one, some people are tempted to sift through belongings and make decisions quickly. If this feels natural to you, fine (consider checking with a grief counselor before moving too quickly through the process). But most people need more time after a loss to organize a loved one’s possessions.” Some people need only a few months; others take years to sort through everything.

Keep a few special things.

Erin Dolan in her post Uncluttering After the Loss of a Loved One says that uncluttering – getting rid of the clutter and keeping what you value – is a way to keep the best of your loved one with you. She says, “Find the handful of things that you value most and that best honor your memories of [your loved one]…the pieces that make your heart sing.”

Save what’s meaningful to you.

As Jeri Dansky says in her post Not Clutter: The Odd Sentimental Items, “Memorabilia is very personal. Go ahead and save meaningless-to-anyone-else sentimental items – but it does help to be selective and save only the most precious. And don’t worry about getting rid of things that you think should be meaningful, but aren’t.”

Get help.

Tina Segal, founder of The Estate Settlers, has set up an information network and a service to assist an estate executor that helps families during the emotional and trying times following a death in the family. Her company focuses its efforts on the financial side of the estate as well as the “stuff” that’s left behind: the furniture, the cars, the jewelry, as well as the house itself.

The death of a loved one is a trying time in one’s life. Go at your own pace and deal with the items in your own way. And ask for help when you need it. As Lisa Montanaro says, “Give yourself permission to grieve first, heal, and then to organize.”

And her best advice: “Be kind to yourself.”

And one more thing…

Get your own house in order.

Getting your own papers and favorite items in order for your heirs is the best gift you can give them. As we’ve mentioned in previous posts, make sure you have the four important papers updated and kept in a safe place. And make sure to create a list of all the important stuff in your life as a guide for after you’re gone.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and foodand coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

Organizing for Your Heirs

Recently I came across two essays that dealt with organizing for the end of one’s life, one a Sunday Dialogue in the New York Times and the other a post by a person who blogs about organizing.

In the Times article, “Discussing Dying with Loved Ones,” the writer, Janis Abrahms Spring, a clinical psychologist and author of Life with Pop: Lessons on Caring for an Aging Parent, says “When aging parents spell out their end-of-life wishes to their children, this is an act of supreme kindness.”

But as we know, adult children need to do this for themselves and their children as well. One reader responded: “The responsibility… of adult offspring is to consider their own end-of-life preferences in order to begin the conversation with the next generation in a more timely manner.”

We addressed this issue a few months ago in two posts that I wrote, one – One Life, Four Papers – about the four papers we should all have: a will, a power of attorney, a health care proxy, and a living will, and the other – Getting Your House in Order – about the need for a comprehensive list of important information: bank accounts and passwords, insurance policies, and credit cards, as well as a list of the people who need to be notified of your death.

As Marcie, creator of the blog Organized by Marcie, says, “preparing for the inevitable end of life is one of the most important things you can do.” She suggests that in addition to a healthy care proxy and advance directive, one create a list of items that have special meaning to you and explain why you feel they are important to you. What a lovely present that is for your loved ones.

As Marcie says, preparing these documents is not fun, but it is important. And, as we know, your family will thank you for it. As one New York Times reader said after receiving a copy of her mother’s living will and health care proxy: “It was a bit of a shock, but I now appreciate how fortunate we [she and her brother] were to have a mother with such foresight and practicality.”

To organize now about the end of your life is practical, realistic, and sensible – and a bit scary. It is truly a gift to your loved ones. As we said in an earlier post, organize your life now and later on will be easier for you and your family.

Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home designcrafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.

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