The legacy letter: How seniors can leave heirs a gift to cherish
Do you like to give advice? Or tell stories?
If you’re anything like me, you have plenty of both to offer should anyone ask. Sometimes I envision my older self as the beloved elder that younger family members come to for wisdom.
The reality is that no one is lining up to hear my sage guidance. There are times that I must bite my tongue rather than dispense bits of advice that generally are not requested.
As I read about leaving a legacy, however, I’m learning about a wonderful vehicle that allows me to put my pearls of wisdom into a palatable form for the important people in my life.
A legacy letter.
A legacy letter is a document for the benefit of your loved ones that contains your personal stories and life lessons. It describes your values and principles. It’s a way of expressing gratitude for your life experiences.
It can take any form and needn’t be limited to a single document. Your legacy letter can be a video, a book, an oral presentation, a song, or an annotated collection of photographs. And there’s no reason why you can’t create a series of letters. It could become an annual ritual, for example, with new editions published each year.
A legacy letter can be a kind of memoir. Or a series of directives. Or a list of wishes.
Another term for a legacy letter is an ethical will, which has its origins in ancient Jewish tradition. Practically speaking, the ethical will — tzava'ot in Hebrew — is a non-binding way of justifying the legal terms of your regular will. It serves to help your heirs understand the basis for your decisions about matters of inheritance.
Here’s the best thing about writing a legacy letter. It makes you feel accomplished and wise — and closer to your loved ones. It’s your story and that makes it worth preserving.
“Stories [and values] have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” Sue Monk Kidd, author
Elements of a legacy letter
Plan to take time with this project. Go at your own pace, but start soon and work on it over the course of days, weeks, months, or even years.
Consider the timing of your letter. You might want your recipients to have it soon, which can be a satisfying way for your family to enjoy your stories and learn about the experiences that shaped your life. You might decide that your letter is to be shared after your death, as a way of helping your loved ones deal with your passing.
Decide who your audience is. It could be your immediate or extended family. It could be a group or a charity you’ve worked with. You might wish to leave your thoughts to an entire community. You can create more than one letter and tailor each to a different group of recipients.
Make your letter authentic. You’re not creating a legal document, so you have the freedom to put your ideas into any form you wish. There’s no template or outline, no formal language, and no limit to length or content. It will be most meaningful if it resonates with you and feels genuine.
Be creative with your presentation. Write a letter or sing a song. Make a video or audio presentation. Use photographs or original art. It’s all up to you. Author Anne Lamott gave a short TED talk a few years ago shortly following her 60th birthday. It’s about things she knows for sure and I think it’s the perfect example of a legacy letter. With her signature humor and grace, she drops bits of wisdom that each of us can relate to. And it’s had an expansive reach — viewed nearly 6.5 million times.
Jog your memory for inspiration. This part can take some time. Memories, good and bad, tend to come in waves. Be prepared to jot them down. You might pull out an album of old photos to spark remembrance. Ask yourself some questions:
- What do you know now that you wish you’d known as a child? In your 20’s? As a new parent? In middle age?
- If you’re a baby boomer, what significant changes in the world have you experienced? Think about how computer and cell phone technology have altered so much in our lives, for example.
- Who were the people who most influenced you as a young person? Grandparents? Teachers? Mentors? Public figures?
- What were the family traditions you’ve carried on?
- Is there a major decision you regret? Or one that changed your life for the better?
- What prompted you to live where you now call home? Are you far from your birthplace? Were there significant moves throughout your life?
- What’s the best piece of advice you were given? Did you follow it?
- What would you most like to be remembered for? Don’t be humble — do be genuine.
Pick a few memories and start writing about them. Writing can prompt you to remember details about an experience. Details make good stories. They also flesh out the picture of who you were and how you became who you are today. You might be surprised at today’s insight about an event from many years ago.
Ask old friends or family members to help. Siblings can be great sources of information for certain details you’ve forgotten. Getting together to reminisce will offer inspiration and enjoyable conversation.
Think about your values. Have you lived your life in accordance with them? Have they changed over time?
If you’re struggling to get started or you’d like some additional guidance, consider using a platform like storii.com. Or check out this article published through the Agency on Aging for Seattle and King County — Leaving Your Legacy.
For more thoughts on leaving a legacy, read this recent SeaCare blog.
Health benefits of creating a legacy letter
Creating a legacy letter enhances your emotional well-being. Done with sincerity, it will be a positive and life-affirming exercise.
It can be a journey of self-discovery – both revealing and a source of comfort.
It allows you to embrace your own story and recognize the wealth it contains for your loved ones.
It’s a vehicle for reminding you of the events in your life that shaped who you are now – and how you’ve chosen to live your life.
Acknowledging the value of your experience helps you celebrate your life.
Involving your family in the process can deepen your connection with them. There’s increased understanding – a therapeutic benefit for all.
At SeaCare, we value getting to know your story and helping you honor your life.
Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.
If you or a loved one you know are looking for additional support during this time and are interested in scheduling a free in-home assessment, please contact SeaCare In-Home Care Services today! A SeaCare family member is standing by. 425-559-4339.