legacy writing

 Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.
~ Sue Monk Kidd


Legacy writing will help you:

  • Clarify your identiy and life purpose
  • Belong
  • Be known
  • Be remembered
  • Have your life make a difference

~ Rachel Freed

 The Phenomenon

The value of sharing family stories seems to have decreased in our modern society.  Many people today do not know the stories of their family in the generations before them.  It is not a well known custom in our society today for adults to create some form of legacy or ethical will to formally impart their wisdom and past history to their children or grandchildren.

 Translation of Terms

Legacy, ethical, or spiritual will.  “An ancient tradition for passing on personal values, beliefs, blessings and advice to future generations” (Baines, 2006, p. 1).  Another definition is “a modern incarnation of an ancient patriarchal tradition that men first transmitted orally and later wrote as letters to their sons to pass on their values to the next generation” (Freed, 2008, para. 1).  For consistency and clarity, this paper will use the term legacy will.

Stories.  Individuals’ tales of true life experiences that connect the past to the future, organize experiences, and connect moments in time with who we are.  Stories serve to predict, organize, and help us teach others as well as ourselves to understand the complexities of our lives and experiences (Kiser, Baumgardner, & Dorado, 2010).

Family stories.  Shared experiences of and with those we care about and are connected to which transcend the individual and serve as a connection, teaching, and learning tool.  They help develop meaning in experiences and create a shared theory to help explain and accept life events (Kiser et al., 2010).  Family stories also bring individuals together and strengthen family bonds.

Legacy wills and stories have often been combined to create a bonding, teaching tool for elders to share with younger generations 

Legacy Wills in Context Historically

          The very first examples of elders teaching their children through storytelling can be found in the Bible.  There are multiple instances where a dying father blesses and gives advice to his child.  In Kings 2:1 (English Standard Version), King David recounts to his son his trials and his wisdom.  He asks his son to be faithful and loyal and to follow his teachings and example.  In Timothy 1:3, Paul writes a letter to his spiritual son Timothy, whom he calls his “beloved child.”  He shares with him his love for him and his gratitude to God and instructs him on the correct path to follow in life.  In the book Ethical Wills by Jack Riemer and Nathanial Stampfer (as cited in Munro, 2004), the authors state that a form of a legacy will can also be seen in the Muslim tradition.  The Jewish tradition, however, has the longest history of ethical wills that have been found (Baines, 2006).  One of the most famous modern ethical wills was written by a Jewish author and playwright to his children in 1916.  Sholom Aleichem’s letter was read into the congressional record and published by the New York Times.  It has thus been labeled one of the great historical modern ethical wills (Riemer & Stampfer, 1991).

I have found examples in personal experiences and multiple writings on the subject, both scholarly and non-scholarly.  Dr. Stephen Covey, bestselling author, and motivational speaker, stated, “There are four needs in all people: To live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy” (as cited in Freed, 2009a).  Family stories become a bridge connecting individuals.  A well known proverb in different forms attributed to many authors is “Experience is the best teacher.”  Children can begin to learn from the shared stories of experiences of their parents and grandparents.  Sue Kidd is quoted as saying, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die we can’t remember who we are or why we are here” (as cited in Freed, 2009a).

          Legacy wills have been said to hold the sacredness of life and give the writer a sense of comfort (Freed, 2009b).  A psychotherapist and author in the field of  legacy writing states that after being introduced to the topic, she wrote a letter to her children sharing her hopes, dreams, and values, and expressing her pride and love for them.  She also discovered that though the letters were intended to be a benefit to her children, they were a benefit in her own life as well.  She states that writing a legacy will helped her to clarify her life purpose and identity, be remembered, feel connected, and feel her life made a difference (Freed, 2009b).

          When we die we take what is most important to our loved ones—ourselves (Andrew, 2010).  One of the many ethical wills that make up the book So That Your Values Live On was written by Madeline Medoff, an engineer who lived from 1916 to 1963.  Her gift and letter to her children reads like a poem.  It is entitled “I Leave Behind Me Life.”  In summary, she states,

“I do not fear death.  My only regrets are memories of a future with those I leave behind.  They are a part of me left behind.  Through them and their children and their children’s children I am carried on.  I love them, they are close to me, they are me.  I do not fear death.  I leave behind me life” (Riemer & Stampfer, 1991, p. 135).

           This gift to her children truly expresses her love for them and places them as the most valued gift in her life.  Because of her writing, they will know and be comforted that she is at peace with her life and death.The sharing of a legacy is often saved for the end of life, but can be completed at any time.  Physician Andrew Weil stresses in his book Healthy Aging that an ethical will’s “main importance is what it can give you in the midst of life” (as cited in Freed, 2008, para. 1).

Health includes psychological and social well-being.  A vital part of health and resilience is having a strong connection to others.  The cornerstone of psychological and social well-being is having a strong relationship with one’s family and friends: “We are social beings” (Kiser et al., 2010, p. 243).  In a study by Grandbois and Sanders (2009) on the resilience of Native Americans, the elders of the tribe stated they owed their strength and resilience to the tribal family or each other.  Their folkways revolve around teaching their children about their heritage, culture, history, and ancestors.  One’s ability to cope is increased by family loyalties, a sense of social connection, and close personal relationships.  A legacy will fosters this connection, links generations (Cohen-Mansfield, Regier, Peyser, & Stanton, 2009), and creates resilience to adversity in life.  One elder explained:

When people ask me who I am, I am father. I am son. I am grandson. I am parent, a husband. Those are the things that identify who I am to myself and these are the things that are in the forefront… We’re a social group, and were a group that depends on each other… Our resilience comes from each other, in my opinion.  (Grandbois & Sanders, 2009, p. 574).

Family stories have also been found to connect the past to the future (Kiser et al., 2010).  They organize and integrate chosen moments into our sense of self.  Stories help us organize, understand, and predict the complex in our life experiences.  Most importantly, family stories connect the multiple meanings of experience to create a shared understanding while communicating values, important life lessons, and beliefs of the individual, family, and society (Kiser et al., 2010).  A legacy will is a useful tool to convey one’s family story while at the same time helping to teach, show care and love, and most importantly, create or maintain a strong bond or connection.  Through these stories and letters, children are shown that life has trials, tragedies, choices, and obstacles, that others are there to stand by and support them, and that they can learn from the past.  A legacy will is the story one wishes to tell and leave as a memory to one’s loved ones.  Freed (2008) writes that each of us has ordinary and extraordinary gifts.  Each person has different life experiences to share with others.  A legacy will is the way and means to accomplish this.

              Finally, legacy wills have been shown to reduce suffering at the end of life (Baines, 2006; Cohen-Mansfield et al., 2009; Munro,

 2004).  Legacy wills have been viewed as a gift of comfort for those left behind after a loved one’s death, and a expression of love given at

any time during one’s life (Cohen-Mansfield et al., 2009; Flashman, Flashman, Noble, & Quick, 1998).  Since each person is unique, each

person’s story is worth telling (Freed, 2009b), and each individual’s gift will benefit not only that person but their loved ones in a multitude of

different ways.



Andrew, C. (2010). Creating lasting legacies. Cosozo Healing Together Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.cosozo.com/article/creating-lasting-legacies

Baines, B. K. (2006). Ethical wills: Putting your values on paper (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press.

Cohen-Mansfield, J., Regier, N. G., Peyser, H., & Stanton, J. (2009). Wisdom of generations: A pilot study of the values transmitted in ethical wills of nursing home residents and student volunteers. The Gerontologist, 49(4), 525-535. Retrieved from CINAHL database.

Flashman, R., Flashman, M., Noble, L., & Quick, S. (1998). Ethical wills: Passing on treasures of the heart. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues, 3(3), 33.

Freed, R. (2008). Why write an ethical will? Drweil.com, Experts: Interviews. Retrieved from http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART03027/Why-Write-an-Ethical-Will.html

Freed, R. (2009a). The ethical will: A legacy of values. Life-legacies.com. Retrieved from http://www.life-legacies.com/ethicalwills/

Freed, R. (2009b). The most important letters we will ever write: Memory and meaning— Mother’s Day. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/

Gessert, C. E., Baines, B. K., Kuross, S. A., Clark, C., & Haller, I. V. (2004). Ethical wills and suffering in patients with cancer: A pilot study. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 7(4), 517-526.

Grandbois, D. M., & Sanders, G. F. (2009). The resilience of Native American elders. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 30, 569-580. doi: 10.1080/01612840902916151.

Kiser, L. J., Baumgardner, B., & Dorado, J. (2010). Who are we, but for the stories we tell: family stories and healing. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy, 2(3), 243-249. doi:10.1037/a0019893

Munro, C. (2004). Ethical wills: Adapting an old tradition to interfaith spiritual counseling. Retrieved from http://www.ethicalwill.com/

Riemer, J., & Stampfer, N. (1991). So that your values live on: Ethical wills and how to prepare them. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights.

Williams, B., Woodby, L., & Drentea, P. (2010). Ethical capital: ‘What’s a poor man got to leave?’ Sociology of Health & Illness, 32(6), 880-897. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9566.2010.01246.x


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