Leaving a Legacy: What Will Yours Be?

Photo album.

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” — Pericles

Webster’s dictionary defines legacy as “anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor.

But when we talk about leaving our own personal legacy, things get more serious.

The idea of leaving a legacy is rooted in the almost universal human desire to be remembered for what we contributed to the world, or at least for what we contributed to the lives of those closest to us.

Radically Redefining Death

As baby boomers enter the late stages of life, they’re rethinking their own mortality and the experience of dying, including how they are remembered.

“It’s called the ‘death positive’ movement,” writes Beth McGroarty in “2019 Wellness Trends” from the Global Wellness Summit. McGroarty, who is vice president, Research & Forecasting at the Global Wellness Institute, adds, “Everything around dying is getting radically rethought, from making the experience more humane, to mourning and funerals getting reimagined, to people actively exploring death as part of a mentally healthy life.”

Just as the 1960s ushered in birth doulas — advocates for mothers during childbirth — the last decade or so has ushered in death doulas — emotional, spiritual and physical advocates for the dying.

“What’s been missing, because the professionals don’t have the time, is to help the dying take a profound look at the meaning of their life and their legacy,” says Henry Fersko-Weiss, death doula pioneer and executive director of the International End-of-Life Doula Association (INELDA), in an article on the Global Wellness Summit website. “This is called the ‘meaning- directed life review.’ It’s not simple reminiscence; it’s an intense process where the doula helps the dying person do a deep, structured review of — and come to peace with — his/her life.”

How to Leave A Legacy

Everyone deserves to leave their own unique legacy, explains Catherine Newman, MSN, a hospice volunteer, end-of-life doula and bereavement counselor based in Wyckoff, N.J. Newman helps clients determine what their legacy can be and to whom they want to leave it.

“It really depends on the person and their life,” Newman says. “Do they have a family? Who was their family? What was their contribution to the country, state or town? What was important to them?”

Newman often begins by getting people to tell stories about their lives. One client with ALS was a nurse and never married but was close to two nieces. “What we came up with was a book telling about her life with her large family, through her childhood, with pictures, especially of her nieces,” Newman says. “She really wanted to leave it to them.”

Another client was a soccer player and coach who left a soccer ball signed by all of her players to her family as her living legacy. Still another client loved to cook. “We had a basket in her hospice room and copies of her recipes,” says Newman. “We asked people to share on the back of the recipe card how good that recipe was, or something they remembered about it. Just little things.” When the client died, the basket was full of recipes and stories — her perfect legacy.

Financial legacies remain an important consideration for many. In the 2012 study “Final Chapter: Californians’ Attitudes and Experiences with Death and Dying,” those surveyed said the most important factor at the end of their lives is to make sure their families are not burdened financially. Several life insurance products are designed to minimize the emotional and financial burdens of funerals.

Stacked photos.

Make It an Ongoing Project

For many of Newman’s clients, sharing their legacy becomes an ongoing project and hopefully one with enough time to complete. “Sadly, we sometimes wait until it’s too late,” she says. “Be a little proactive in an organizational way. You don’t want to wait for someone else to do it. You want some input.”

As careers and kids are winding down, people in their 50s and 60s are at the perfect age to begin thinking about creating a meaningful legacy. “Start looking at mementos — those pictures, those awards,” Newman advises. “Start an outline. Make some notes. Put it in a safe place … with important papers. It doesn’t matter how you do it.”

What does matter is to start now. Make end-of-life and funeral or memorial wishes known. Tell a story, whether it’s in words, photos, art, music, craft items, a hobby, sports equipment or anything else that matters. If it’s too overwhelming, recruit a friend, family member or doula/caregiver to help.

Those who leave a robust legacy, large or small, allow future generations to carry a part of them into the future.

Give Future Generations a Gift: Your Memories

Want to record your life story or life lessons for future generations? It’s easier than you think.

Thought starters:

  • Start with the big stuff. What matters most? One expert suggests answering the question “If I only had an hour to tell my story, what would it be?” Or, begin with five statements.
  • Write an outline over several pages. What were major points in your life or that of your family?
  • Or, focus on certain subjects or periods.
  • Name people who mattered to you, say why, and describe them.
  • Remember that your audience may not be your children as much as your grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even future “greats,” so don’t assume they know anything about you, your family, or what life was like. Your gift can resonate for generations.
  • Don’t be afraid of emotion, heartache or the truth. Future generations will appreciate your candor.

Capturing your memories:

  1. Grab your phone and shoot a series of “selfie” videos.
  2. Create a legacy journal. Carry it with you to handwrite memories or lessons whenever a creative spark strikes. Or find a friend who writes and tell them your stories.
  3. Your phone’s app store has journaling apps, which let you dictate memories or life lessons if you prefer speaking over writing.
  4. Create a photo book. Numerous online companies allow you to design a book with your photos that they will publish in quantity and send to you for surprisingly affordable costs.
  5. Create a photo album or scrapbook. Don’t forget to identify people in each photo. Along with photos and documents, reserve additional pages for longer explanations of people in photos, what they were doing and what they were like, or life lessons or thoughts.
  6. Hire someone to tell your story for you. For example, picturesandstories.com offers “coaching, writing, editing, photo prep, design, and printing. Whatever you need to create your LEGACY.” Simply search the Internet for “how to create my life stories in a book” or “life story writing services.”
  7. Be creative! Paint pictures, give away your handmade items, write poetry, have your old team sign your ball glove, and more.

You can read more about how life insurance works and the role it can play in your legacy here.