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

 

How Not to Talk to Your Mother

My mother always said she wanted to die in the house, the one she had lived in for almost 50 years and where she had raised her children. Of course, what she meant was she wanted to spend the rest of her days in the comfortable and familiar place she knew, not in a retirement community.

Would she have been more comfortable in a house on one floor rather than three? Would it have been easier to live in a place with wider halls and doorways to accommodate her wheelchair? And in a house that didn’t have stairs up to the front door? Yes, yes, and yes.

But these weren’t reasons that resonated with my mother. She was happy where she was, taken care of by my father, who was a huge support system for her.

Would she have benefited from a discussion about how she could get round-the-clock care in a more accommodating space? Not really.

If you have a mom (or dad) who knows exactly what they want and how they want to spend however many days or years are left to them, you don’t want to start a conversation about how you know better (even if you think you do).

You want to start with where they are. As Arthur Ashe said, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

So what can you do with what you have? You have a lot of love for your parents and you want to consider what’s best for them. You know they want to stay in the family home. How can you make it easier, healthier, and certainly safer for them to do that?

You can start with the idea of downsizing and decluttering to make the house easier to navigate. If that’s not something they have considered, you’ll want to begin the conversation slowly, and be considerate of their feelings as you go.

It may be at least as hard for your parents to talk about this as it is for you so here are some suggestions to make it a little easier for both of you.

Start now. Whatever your parents’ age, it’s time for them to start talking about the eventual disposition of their belongings. Encourage them; let them know you’re ready to have this conversation whenever they are.

Listen more than you talk. Let your parents do most of the talking. Make the discussion a dialogue, not a lecture.

Ask how you can help. Your parents may have their own ideas about how to get the process started, and how they would like you to help. They may or may not want your opinions; they may or may not want your physical help.

Be prepared with your suggestions. If your parents are at a loss as to how to start, have some concrete suggestions for them. Even if they don’t accept your ideas, hearing about them may help them to formulate their own.

Ask questions. As you talk about specific items, discuss your parents’ feelings about them, and ask about any special memories they may evoke. You may be surprised at the details of family history that will emerge.

Tell stories. Stories bring us together and help keep our family history alive. They help us see our lives more clearly. Sometimes we transform a story just by telling it over and over, learning to see it in a new way each time we share it.

Give them a copy of our book. Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home is a great Mother’s Day gift. And this is the perfect time to purchase it because, for a short time, the book is available at half off the original price.

So how will you celebrate Mother’s Day? Wear a big smile, have an open heart, and don’t forget the flowers.

 

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

The Joy of a Junk Drawer Decluttered

It all started when my oven stopped working properly. Food would cook or bake faster on the left side, sometimes even burn, while food on the right side was not yet done. This had gone on long enough and it was finally time for a new oven.

The new one would be a gas wall oven, just like the old one, but the new one would have an electric starter. That meant having to make a connection under the counter to an electrical outlet on the other side of the cooktop. Before the new oven was installed, I was told to empty out the cabinet beneath the oven, my serving dishes, and to the right of it below the cooktop, my pots and pans. I also emptied out the cabinet above the oven just in case, the one with all my baking pans.

Where to put the stuff? I put paper down on the dining room floor and laid everything down. What an awakening it was to see how much cooking equipment I had. There were so many things I didn’t need and I knew, for sure, I wasn’t going to put them all back. This was the perfect time to downsize and declutter.

To start, I put aside the dishes and pots that I use regularly or at least often enough to warrant keeping. The next step was to ask my kids to take what they wanted. Then my husband sold a couple of pots on Craigslist and I offered some serving dishes and utensils to a non-profit. And finally I donated what was left. Now I have cabinets where I can actually see what I have and where I don’t have to pull out 4 or 5 or 6 things to get at the one I want. What a joy. And it’s so much easier to prepare meals.

It is wonderful to work in a kitchen with fewer items that are more easily accessible. But my joy was tempered somewhat because I have this junk drawer that sticks each time I open it because it’s so overstuffed. Yes, this is a long story of how I finally, after more time than I care to remember, have decluttered my junk drawer.

I took everything out of the drawer and again put it all on paper. Many organizers emphasize the importance of emptying out a drawer or closet completely in order to see what you have and I couldn’t agree more. It’s so much easier to work that way, and we’ve talked about this process in a previous post.

And, strange as it might be to imagine, it was also a time for reminiscing. I found so many books of matches. When candle lighting is called for I always scramble to find matches. Not any more. I discovered more than two dozen matchbooks that had been shoved to the back recesses of the drawer, most of them from restaurants where we had enjoyed meals. It was fun to remember the happy occasions, like Tavern on the Green, a restaurant that has now been reinvented; family celebrations, like those at Belgo and City Crab, places that are long gone; and casual times at a neighborhood joint, Plate 347, that is no longer there. A particularly bittersweet memory: wonderful dinners at Windows on the World, with its spectacular view of the city.

But, back to the present. The next step was to put like things together, something we say often in our book. It’s amazing to see how many different spatulas, whisks, and measuring spoons I had. Were they really different or were they the same? I kept the ones I liked best or used most often and let go of the rest. Some went to my kids – one wanted my melon baller – and the rest went to the thrift store.

My junk drawer now opens easily and I can see what I have without moving things around. It may not be as neat as the one in the photograph, above, with custom-made dividers, but it works, smoothly and efficiently. I own fewer items now and many of the items I no longer need have found new homes.

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: Is It Comforting to Have a Partner to Help?

We wrote in our book, Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home, and often say in our posts that it’s a good idea to get help when downsizing and decluttering. But what makes a person a good helper and what is the best way to make use of their help?

The person who helps could be your best friend or a sibling but sometimes it’s better to work with someone who has a little distance from the task at hand, someone who knows you but who has a little more perspective on the situation.

A person who helps in whatever way should be kind and nonjudgmental and on a similar wavelength as you are. It’s not helpful to hear “Oh, just get rid of that,” when you’re contemplating something you want to keep, or “You couldn’t possibly get rid of that,” when you’re thinking of letting something go. The person you choose should offer companionship and encouragement, not make decrees. A partner can also help you minimize regrets by allowing you the time to think through your decisions.

Whether you’re a “keeper or a thrower” – and most likely, if you’re reading this post, you are a keeper – you can gain insight from someone whose view is just slightly different than yours.

A helper can be just an extra pair of hands, helping to throw out the trash and take the donated items to their respective places. Or a helper can be a mental or emotional “pair of hands,” someone who helps keep you focused and offers support, and helps keep you from procrastinating. A helper can also help provide a deadline, or at least a schedule. Making appointments, weekly or otherwise, with a friend or helper is creating a schedule for your decluttering.

As you break down the job of decluttering into manageable parts, it helps to match the helper with the task you’re working on.

If you’re sorting through your clothes, for instance, you could ask a friend whose taste you admire, to help you decide what looks good on you and you’ll want to keep from what doesn’t quite fit or is out of date and you can give away.

If you’re sorting through books, you can ask for help from a friend who is a book lover but who is a little less sentimental than you are. Someone who can say of the fiction, “Are you really going to reread this?” or of the nonfiction, “If you need this information, you can always look it up.”

The task of sorting through papers, financial and medical, may be too private to share with a friend but it would be helpful to read about or discuss with friends the length of time you need to keep certain papers and what kinds of filing systems other people use. The goal of paper sorting is to keep only what you have to and to file it in such a way that you can retrieve it when you need it. A friend who’s organized may help you come up with filing categories that work for you.

Having a calendar of events, or someone who can keep you abreast of such events, can help. Before your town’s annual free shredding day, you can get your papers together. In preparation for your town’s tag sale, you can go through your clothes closet. If your local thrift shop has an annual spring event, you can get your giveaway items together to drop them off.

Time also helps. With enough time, you can decide whether an item is something you really want to keep or something you can give away. With time to think about it, I was able to let go of a favorite vase of my mother’s. And sometimes the wisdom of others, even people of different times and different places, can help give you perspective. See posts about that here and here.

At the very least, but also in some ways the very most, a person you’re comfortable spending organizing time with is there for you, not for your stuff and not for decluttering, but for you. Just keeping you company and allowing you space to work and offering moral support is an act of friendship, an almost sacred act. We would all be wise to accept and welcome such support.

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 the Family Home: Can We Talk?

MO gold seal

“The holiday season presents families with an excellent opportunity to have “the conversation.” The one no one really wants to have, but everyone needs to have sooner or later. The conversation that starts with: “What are we going do with all this stuff?!…” Read more here:

 

“Emptying the Family Home Without Battling Siblings”

Many thanks to Jill Yanish and PBS’s Next Avenue for featuring us and our new e-book Moving On in her article about downsizing the home. Here it is: 

Keep? Sell? Toss? These three options are ammo for the battle when clearing the family home after a parent leaves it. Read more…

Family Harmony at the Holidays

Getting together for the holidays provides a great opportunity to talk with your siblings about family matters – who gets what, who does what, and how best to take care of mom and dad if that’s the issue you’re facing right now.

Holidays can bring out the best in us but the stress of planning them can sometimes bring out the worst. Family discussions can be thoughtful and productive but they can also be a minefield of misinterpretations, misconstrued meanings, and hurt feelings.

Remember that when discussing issues pertaining to your parents, EVERYONE should know EVERYTHING. No one should feel left out of the decision-making process or even of the flow of ideas.

As you engage in a discussion of a sensitive subject (and many family issues are), be aware of your choice of words, using positive ones rather than the negative ones that might roll off your tongue all too easily. Watch your tone of voice, too. As we know, it’s not only what we say but how we say it that matters. Make suggestions rather than commandments.

Here are some more things we learned while working on our book.

Keep your focus. This is not a contest to see who can get the most or who does the most. This is a time to think of family harmony.

Avoid power struggles. Choose your words carefully. Watch your tone of voice. Back away and try again later if things get heated.

Acknowledge the past, but look to the future. Be aware of any unfinished business from your childhood and try to keep it from getting in the way now.

Respect each other’s differences. And there are bound to be differences. Understand the fact that not everyone feels the same way you do about family matters.

Share your memories. Talk about your common history, share stories of childhood, and find ways to enjoy yourselves.

With some thought beforehand and the right attitude the holidays can be a good time for remembering the past, talking in the present, and planning for the future as a family.

LH

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