Aging well includes having a firm grasp on life ever after. The void that loved ones feel upon the death of a parent or close relative represents the part of their life that is suddenly empty due to the loss. The emotional impact of a parent’s passing can be unpredictable, since the state of mind immediately following a sudden death can trigger feelings of regret or guilt over unresolved issues.
One way to help families cope with death is by preparing an ethical will, which conveys your core values and is a loving gesture to help them through the bereavement period. Although an ethical will is not a legal document, you can use it to pass on life lessons, express gratitude, explain your reasoning for certain events in your life, and to leave personal messages for family members. An ethical will is also a good (and somewhat clever!) way to make amends with estranged family members by conveying or requesting forgiveness for lingering misunderstandings or petty disagreements. In doing so, you may forge a new legacy of peace for your descendants. It’s a little wimpy – but in essence long-standing family feuds can be settled from the grave, and in doing so – release loyal relatives from taking up a cause that may have lost importance within the family, or simply isn’t their battle to fight.
Another concept to consider is the benefit of sharing your personal legacy while you’re still alive. Imagine being able to witness the positive impact of passing on monetary and/or personal gifts to your loved ones. My parents were thoughtful enough to extend financial perks to both my brother and myself while still alive by paying off a mortgage and funding a year’s worth of private schooling for their grandkids. The conditions attached to the gifts were a tad obscure and crafty, including hosting a “burn the mortgage” party for the whole family and having the kids write them a thank you note in the language of their choice (I think it was Swahili or something similar). Nonetheless, it was a win-win. My folks were overjoyed to see us so excited – and naturally we were floored by their generosity!
Here’s another great idea that an acquaintance of mine recently shared. After her mom completed both a legal and living will down to the last detail, including the exact flowers she would prefer on her casket, she took an innovative approach for allocating personal items to her three daughters. Several years ago, she instructed each one to pre-select an item from all of her possessions on their birthdays, beginning with the oldest child. It has since become an annual tradition. She said it gives her mom peace and a sense of joy in knowing which daughters would have certain things. At first, her family thought it was a bit morbid to be mentally divvying up her personal items while she is still alive, but after a few years, it has evolved into a social celebration of birthdays and her mom’s legacy of life.
By sharing your personal legacy while still alive, inheritors are able to properly express gratitude and experience the positive effects of your generosity.
If you have several children, ask each of them which of your personal possessions they would like to inherit and do your best to make it so. Although it may seem like a difficult task, everyone will honor your wishes if they are clarified before your death. Some have reported experiencing a sense of comfort and closure in knowing where possessions will go after death and it minimizes hurt feelings among family survivors.
If your legacy includes significant assets, such as real estate and a stock portfolio, it’s important that you state your final wishes while of sound mind and body to avoid conflicts among inheritors after you are gone.
Memories forged throughout your lifetime may have keepsakes, photographs and mementos associated with them that you wish to share with specific people. The inheritance of a prized fishing reel, treasured orchard collection or vintage piano may inspire a specific grandchild, friend, niece or nephew that expressed interest in or helped encourage your dedication to the skill. Express appreciation by spreading a legacy of token gifts, collectables and photographs among those that may not be mentioned specifically in a formal will, such as 2nd and 3rd generation relatives and close friends. Acknowledge any fictive kinship relationships you may have nurtured over the years by passing on mementos to those that have remained a constant part of your life.
If one family member stands out in your life or provided the majority of your caregiving throughout your past, express your appreciation with a personal keepsake or gift, such as a favorite piece of jewelry, and include a hand-written message of gratitude.
A living will is essential to clarify your specific desires regarding the final stages of aging, illness, dying and death. In doing so, you articulate your wishes regarding end-of-life care, including your preferences for resuscitation in the event of heart or lung stoppage. Dying with dignity includes clarification of life support, organ donation and Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) requests. A living will and a medical power of attorney requires that you appoint a trusted relative or friend to carry out your final wishes, and offers assurance of peaceful compliance by family members after your death.
As stated in my previously published book, ‘The Caregiver’s Survival Guide,’ it’s best to discuss end-of-life issues before the end is imminent and when you are healthy, of sound mind and independent. Life and death situations can occur unexpectedly, such as the onset of a terminal illness, and are not the ideal time to make rational decisions. Clarify you wishes through a living will and include a legacy letter to articulate your inner thoughts and pearls of wisdom for surviving loved-ones.
A legacy letter can be an addendum to your legal will to designate any philanthropic legacies you may wish to endow, including the reason for your generosity. For instance, you may choose to donate a cash amount to the local animal shelter and designate it to be applied exclusively toward adoption fees incurred by those over the age of 65 because you personally experienced the joys of owning a dog or cat during your golden years.
We’ve all seen movies depicting the formal reading of a relative’s last will and testament, which often includes a video recording of the deceased to express their last wishes. That’s actually a very good idea and gaining in popularity, thanks to the digital age. A video that is shared after your death is an effective way of stating your personal legacy preferences with clarity, sincerity and compassion. Remove all doubt regarding your decision to pass on a vintage automobile to your 16 year-old grandson by explaining your reasons for doing so. State conditions that are concise and reasonable, such as his successful high school graduation and acceptance into college, prior to granting his claim on the vehicle.