Ethical-legacy wills convey 'who we are' to heirs

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 15, 2013 

Terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch delivered his "The Last Lecture" in 2007.

His talk and, later, bestselling book included childhood stories, such as painting his room and covering his walls with drawings of chess pieces, a quadratic equation and Pandora's box. He expressed his values, describing the importance of handwritten "thank you" letters, and honored his wife and three children.

His lecture and book were both forms of ethical wills: written stories, beliefs and tributes to friends and family.

The term "ethical wills" comes from the Jewish tradition, but people of all faiths and nationalities have been leaving such accounts since humans first began recording their experiences. I've changed the name to "ethical-legacy wills" to clarify the description and to remove the possible confusion that an ethical will is simply a just and fair legal document.

Writing an ethical-legacy will doesn't require a book-length manuscript to offer heirs unexpected riches. Even a few sentences can make a profound difference. There is no right way to do an ethical-legacy will.

Such documents often deal with one or all of three main components:

Past: Personal and family stories and life lessons.
Present: Values and beliefs.
Future: Hopes, blessings and tributes.

Whatever the focus, the writing (or video) allows our voices to live on. Though what we do is replaceable, who we are is not. Children and grandchildren are often the target readers, but spouses, friends, extended family members and communities are also possibilities.

GETTING STARTED

Begin your ethical-legacy will by writing for just 20 minutes a day, or form a small group and work together. Below are three sets of sample "writing prompts."

Go ahead. Try a few exercises, and see what you think!

Past: Storytelling
--Choose one of your signature stories.
--Write out the story in the same way you often tell it.
--Expand the description. What details can you add to your usual telling?
--Explain why you return to this story.
--Reflect on the life lessons or meaning in the events.

Present: Reflecting on possessions
--Pick one of your treasured possessions.
--Describe the origin of the object. How, when and why did you receive it? If there a story or person involved, explore the circumstances.
--Explain why the item is important to you. What does your attachment show about your values?
--If you plan to leave the possession to a particular person, discuss your decision.

Future: Offering tributes
--Select one family member or friend for a tribute.
--Write about what you value in the person. Tell a story about something he or she did that you admired.
--Discuss the qualities and shared experiences that have made you grateful for him or her.
--Explore what touches you the most about the loved one.
--Comment on the attributes and traits that bring you joy.

Margi Fox teaches English at Western Washington University and offers workshops on ethical-legacy wills. She's working on "The Afterlife of Wills," a nonfiction book about the emotional and spiritual dimensions of final bequests.

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