By Carolyn Wallace
Second in a two-part series on ethical wills / legacy letters
In last month’s article (The Most Important Letter We Will Ever Write) I wrote of the possibility that any of us may be snatched from this great green earth in a moment. I shared my belief that the writing of a legacy letter or ethical will can be one of the greatest gifts we can leave for our loved ones. I also outlined a couple of exercises for getting started.
Today, in this issue about Blessings and Gratitude, I offer a way to accomplish the writing that can deepen our spiritual awareness and our connection with ourselves in the act of creating this priceless gift that can bless our loved ones for generations.
We may wonder: how can we dive into the quiet river of peace and wisdom deep inside to access what we most want to say in this last love letter to those who mean the most to us? Something that can inspire is to read pieces written by women who knew they were going to die very soon. I invite you to read two such pieces.
Bettina Bricknell, 29 years old, wrote a legacy letter which was read at her memorial service. Barry Baines, a dedicated ethical wills pioneer, included Bettina’s letter in his book Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper.
The letter says, in part:
“Dear friends and loved ones,
I want to say thank you and goodbye and share with you the lessons I’ve learned through my dying … I have profoundly experienced that love is all that matters… I judged others and have judged myself even more harshly. But I have learned that we carry within ourselves the abundant wisdom and love to heal our weary heart and judgmental mind …
My sadness is in leaving you … I’ll miss the deep comfort and love of waking up in (my husband) Peter’s arms… the sunny days of fishing with my dad, of sharing with my mom her love of life and … giggling with my sister, Maria… How appreciative I feel when I think of my brother Michael’s faith and encouragement …
I reluctantly give up walking on this beautiful planet … The glistening sun … the sound of a brook … the beauty of a gentle snowfall … these are the things I have loved.
Please do not think I have lost a battle … I have won the challenge of life. I have shared unconditional love. I have opened to the mystery …
When you think of me, know that my spirit has taken flight and that I loved you … Bettina.”
(See CelebrationsOfLife.net for the full text of this letter and more—a great legacy letter / ethical wills resource.)
Jane Catherine Lotter of Seattle Washington, who died this year at 60, wrote her own obituary, which is really a legacy letter. It appeared in The Seattle Times, on July 28th. She wrote, in part:
“I also want to thank Mrs. Senour, my first grade teacher, for teaching me to read. I loved witty conversation, long walks, and good books. Among my favorite authors were …
Bobby M (husband) I love you up to the sky. Thank you for all the love and laughter and for standing by me to the end. Tessa and Riley, (children) I love you so much, and I’m so proud of you. I wish you such good things. May you, every day, connect with the brilliancy of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.
I first got sick in January 2010. When the cancer recurred last year and was terminal, I decided to be joyful about having had a full life, rather than sad about having to die. Amazingly, this outlook worked for me (Well, most of the time.)
Meditation and the study of Buddhist philosophy also helped me accept what I could not change … I am at peace. And on that upbeat note, I take my leave of this rollicking, revolving world—this sun, that moon, that walk around Green Lake …
My beloved Bob, Tessa, and Riley. My beloved friends and family. How precious you have been to me. Knowing and loving each of you was the success story of my life. Metaphorically speaking, we will meet again, joyfully, on the other side.
Beautiful day, happy to have been here. XOXO, Jane / Mom”
I’m also moved by a quote that comes to me over and over as the simplest and best advice for writing a legacy letter: “Words that come from the heart enter the heart.” (So That Your Values Live On—Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them, edited and annotated by Jack Reimer and Nathaniel Stampfer). For me, legacy letters that inspire exemplify this truth.
I have often read exceptional books about writing that include fabulous writing exercises. For a long time I would keep reading right on through to the next elegantly conceived exercise or prompt and then the next. What I accomplished was reading a lot about writing, while not writing. (Now I do both.) In other words, for your own sake and that of your dear ones, please consider actually “going for it,” now.
Here’s a way to do that. Amazingly, the process can be accomplished in as little as two hours, one hour one week, another hour the next. First, schedule in your planner an hour-long appointment with yourself for sometime in the next seven days. (If you need support and encouragement, invite one of your best friends to do it with you! If (s)he can’t, do it by yourself.)
I suggest you set aside the rest of this article to read at your appointment with yourself, just before following the steps outlined below.
OK. Now you are really here. You’ve set aside an hour for yourself. Go for it!
Follow the seven steps below:
1. Find your copy of the October issue of WNC Woman. Take it to a comfortable chair and review the last few paragraphs of my article (The Most Important Letter We Will Ever Write, page 21. If you don’t have a copy in hand, see the article on wncwoman.com) to review components often included in legacy letters. Then read Bettina Bricknell’s and Jane Lotter’s letters again to create an immediate emotional context. Next read the visualization below through twice. Now close your eyes and go to a special place in your mind’s eye. Take a few deep relaxing breaths and engage in the visualization, or if you relate more to the term–the daydream–for 15 or 20 minutes:
• Imagine you are “on the other side”; using this world’s vernacular, you are dead. Let that sink in. You’re dead.
• Temporarily you have both invisibility and omniscience—in addition to seeing everything, you can feel the emotions and thoughts of others as they occur.
• The Fall air is crisp and pleasantly cool, the light both soft and intense, illuminating color and form with the clarity that only the Autumn sun brings. Tree arms are flaming reds, yellows, oranges, and deep maroons.
• Your family and closest friends have gathered in a beautiful place in the mountains for the day to remember together and celebrate your life. They sit this morning on colorful quilts beneath the fiery branches. Some are speaking quietly and holding hands, while others stare far into the slow dancing cloud canopy in the azure sky.
• What is being said? Listen carefully to the conversations. Really give yourself time. Look into the faces of each person, while hearing their thoughts and sensing their feelings, one by one.
• Now, the person you chose ahead of time stands and after taking a long breath, begins to read your letter. Listen as your words sail gently through the quiet air to the hearts of your chosen recipients. Hear all you wrote as they hear. The words come to you easily now as you look at their faces, because you see that they are hearing the messages they most need to receive.
• Notice everything: the tears and laughter, the memories and reflections, the connections around the circle.
• Then another loved one stands and begins to sing one of your favorite songs. Then someone else stands too, joining in, and pretty soon everybody is holding hands, swaying a bit, and singing. There are tears, and smiles too. Quite suddenly, you fully sense the depth and breadth of what you have given, of what has been received. Just be with that for a bit.
• When this journey feels complete, breathe deeply and let the scene slowly fade into a distance, the future perhaps. Take another breath and open your eyes …
2. Take your pen and paper. (If you are willing; save your computer for later.) Write without stopping, write what you saw, heard and felt. Write quickly like you would write a significant night dream that may fade fast that you want to capture. Include every detail you remember. Note who read the legacy letter, and who led the song. List who was there and what they thought, felt, and said. Set this piece aside.
3. Close your eyes for a brief moment and be in your heart with your loved ones. You are gone. They need your words. Write the letter. No editing right now. Don’t worry. You can change anything you want to, later. Now is the time to just write. Let your thoughts and feelings flow as if this is your only opportunity to write this letter. Write “from the heart to the heart.” You have 30 minutes. Look at the clock. Begin!
4. I lied. You can have more time if you need it.
5. Put the letter in a drawer. Enter another one-hour appointment in your planner for three to seven days from now. Instruct your other-than-conscious mind to bring to your attention, at the right time, anything important you may have left out.
6. At the next appointment time, read your piece. Add and subtract until it feels right.
7. Write your letter legibly or create a document on your computer. Save at least two copies in a secure, accessible place. Tell somebody close to you where they are. You can decide now or later who you want your letter to be shared with and when: at a graduation, bats mitzvah, birth of a child, wedding, a life celebration after your death… You may choose to write your letter again, revise, or add to it from time to time.
Give yourself some serious credit. You’ve done something amazing and very important. Plan a meaningful way to celebrate!
Just one tip for this time about how to leverage this accomplishment into more writing. An ancient teaching advises “funding the will through action” (The Book of Runes by Ralph Blum).
Every time we actually do the important and fabulous thing we really want to do, we strengthen the will (muscle) to do it again. And the next time we do it, we strengthen the will some more. And the next time…
Got a pen?