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Leaving Your Legacy

Vintage Family Black and White Photos

These days, everybody is thinking about legacy. From politicians to tech programmers designing programs for capturing our digital lives, the legacy concept looms large. And as we age, the questions can become more insistent. What will stay after we’ve gone? What do we leave behind? What legacy did we receive from those who came before?

We all know that legacy isn’t just about the physical “stuff” we leave behind. Tangibles are always part of legacy, encompassing a wide range of things, including investments, real estate, vehicles, family heirlooms, and diverse collections ranging from guns to Barbie Dolls, cookbooks to diaries. We also know that legacy is about the intangibles—our values, stories, knowledge, memories, hopes, and dreams. But how and to whom do we pass these on?

For the records
Fortunately, a growing number of approaches exist to help us think about legacy and assist us in considering this possibly uncomfortable topic. One strategy is to create an ethical will. With roots in Judaism, the practice has gained universal popularity. Sometimes called a legacy letter, an ethical will is not a legal document that distributes material wealth, but a heartfelt expression of what truly matters most. It can be written at any time and shared while the writer is still alive.

Another legacy practice captures our stories in our own voices. These can be accomplished with the help of a personal historian or videographer or can be done with friends and family members. For example, Liz Behlke is a writer and personal historian who helps people recover their stories and discover what they want to share with the next generation.

Another strategy for communicating your personal story is video. Len Davis, an award-winning commercial and personal videographer, films and facilitates autobiographical interviews with elders. People who seek his expertise fall into two categories—30- to 60-year-olds who notice their aging parents changing and losing some of their faculties and recognize that the window of opportunity for them to access the stories and information about their parents’ lives is closing; and 60- to 90-year-olds who want to capture their lived experience and share it with grandkids or future generations. They want to be able to reflect on their own lives as well as those of generations past.

“People are motivated to preserve their cultural history and their sense of identity,” says Davis. “They want to share where their family is from, the food they ate, the heirlooms that were passed down to them. Some people want to talk about their professional and civic accomplishments, or their lives in the military.” The video experience allows them to explore who they are and what they want others to know. Davis comments, “The videos have sometimes changed the relationship between adults and their elderly parents. This particular media and the recorded stories helped the adult children understand their parents differently, with more knowledge and compassion.”

Clips from the videos have been used in memorial services and other life celebrations. People also can watch the video and enter a different relationship with their parents or with themselves. Davis says, “People don’t want to live with regret about what they didn’t share.”

Beyond personal memories, many people possess historical material. Nicolette Bromberg, who curates visual materials for the archives at University of Washington Special Collections, says, “I save lives. I save them for history, for our region.”

Among Bromberg’s recent finds is a photograph of three soldiers wearing masks with the caption “Flu Dodgers”—rare documentation from the 1918 flu pandemic. Another search revealed pictures of a Sikh worker and inventor in the logging industry. “We knew there were Sikhs here from those early years but didn’t have much documentation to show it.”

“People throw things out because they can’t deal with them, but you never know what will be useful to researchers,” Bromberg says. “Footage by a man who went to Alaska and filmed people drinking was used by Ken Burns in one of his films.”

So, if you are ready to let go of some of your old photo albums, home movies, and other personal memorabilia, you can ask the UW archivists to come and assess the material.

Open to memories
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”—Maya Angelou

Often, I ask people what “legacy” means to them. I find they are surprised and then intrigued to think about it. Elderwise operations director Annie Koziol had this to say:

“In my family, we talk about our legacy. We didn’t get a lot of money but one thing we got from my mom, no matter where we lived, was that our house was the welcoming place for all the kids and families around us. My kids and I live that legacy. I’ve been a foster mom and my home always welcomes others.”

When I first became a hospice volunteer, I helped a widowed client throw a 40th birthday party for his wife—six months after she died. We invited the same people who had come to her funeral, requesting stories and memories. We laughed and cried as we honored the unique ways she had touched each person. A mutual friend called me later, thankful for the opportunity to share and hear the stories. She added, “I don’t want to wait until somebody I love dies to tell them what I love and value about them. I’m going to start telling the people in my life right now.”

That was 30 years ago. Now it has become more common to have life celebrations for people who are facing death while they are still able to interact and be present. They receive the blessings, hear the memories, and know—without a doubt—how much their life mattered to those gathered.

We don’t need to be at the end of our lives to receive information from those whose lives we have touched. We don’t need the people we care about to be declining before sharing the stories and memories harvested from having them in our lives.

It takes courage to ask what others appreciate and remember about us. And it takes kindness and compassion to let others know their value in our lives.

Consider answering these questions and see what emerges for you:

  • How do you want to be remembered?
  • What do you want to be remembered for?
  • What do you think others would say about you if asked?

What better time to start asking these questions of ourselves and others?

Contributor Rebecca Crichton directs the Northwest Center for Creative Aging and serves on the Age Friendly Coalition for Seattle and King County.