When we reflect on our relationships, we can't help but recognize that we've said and done things that we wish we hadn't. We've made mistakes, mistakes that have hurt those we love -- sometimes without even realizing it, sometimes accidentally, sometimes through neglect, judgment or gossip, and yes, sometimes purposely.
Writing a legacy letter to acknowledge and take responsibility for what you've said or done may be a welcome gift to the one you've wronged and a release and relief for you.
Let's consider ourselves first. No one wants to pass on a legacy of hurt or pain, yet often this is part of what we do inadvertently when we are silent about our actions. Acknowledging our wrongdoings reduces the personal baggage we carry around with us, sometimes for many decades. Bringing closure to something unfinished lightens the psychic load we carry, and may result in a sense of liberation and lightness. Admitting that we aren't perfect, and that we are sincerely sorry when our imperfection hurts another, can heal a relationship that has long been constricted and distant even many years after the wrongdoing. It takes courage to write a direct and specific apology, but it is well worth considering; it is a significant component of our legacy writing.
It can also be worthwhile to write a letter of apology to a person who has already died. Apologizing, making an amend, may be just the closure you need in a relationship that ended in a troubled way. Some years ago I led a workshop in which I asked the participants to write an apology, as a precursor for a legacy letter. When the workshop concluded, a young woman approached me saying that she'd written it "all wrong." I translated her remark to mean that she wanted my approval for what she'd written. I explained, "There's no wrong way to do this. We're each unique, but I'd like to hear what you wrote." She read a moving amend to her father. After she finished reading, I said that it couldn't have been better. She responded that her father was dead. I expressed my belief that death doesn't mean an end of a relationship; that she was courageous to have addressed her unfinished business with her father so honestly. She was visibly relieved and explained that she couldn't have made the apology while he was alive.
Writing a legacy letter of amend does not necessarily demand sending or sharing what you write. It is your choice to send the letter -- either now or at some later time -- or to destroy the letter in a ritual act of release.
For the receiver of the letter, there are many potential results. Our written apologies and regrets may be received as a generous and humble act of love that will be appreciated now and long after we are gone. But that may not always be the case. Another possibility is that the receiver never experienced the hurt you are apologizing for, and will receive the letter with respect, but little emotional reaction. It's also possible that the receiver will experience your legacy letter as "too little, too late" and nothing in the relationship will change. No matter the response, we need to remember that we are writing because it is important for us to express our values and take responsibility for our actions. We can never know or predict how even our best efforts will affect another. If this writing is done looking for a specific response, it defeats its purpose.
The Sages said
"... one must be
careful to say these things
so that his family will accept them from him"
-- The Talmud
We need to state our truths, in a kind way, of course, and with the hope, as the Buddhists say, that our writing will "do no harm."
As part of the legacy she wrote her daughter, who was leaving home for college, Sharon Strassfeld wrote this moving and humble apology:
"I have no way to lessen for you the pain you suffered in having been an acutely sensitive child in the hands of a strong and assertive mother. But I will tell you that always, always, I gave you the best that I had available to give. And sometimes my best was simply not good enough. I'm sorry for that."
Some Suggestions for Action:
1. In preparation, list three people to whom you want to offer amends or apologize for something harmful you have done or said. (The people on your list may be living or not.)
2. For each name, describe in a paragraph of any length the harm(s) you have done.
3. Choose one person from your list and write your reasons for seeking resolution.
4. Spending no more than 15 minutes writing. Draft a legacy letter to that person that includes a description and acknowledgement of what you did or said, concluding with your apology. Be sure that you don't ask for the other's forgiveness, that your letter is simply you taking full responsibility for your actions or speech.
5. Put the letter away for at least one day, then reread and edit it, and decide whether and when you will send it. If you decide "not now," put the letter with your private personal papers. Bring it out regularly to reconsider your decision.
6. You can repeat steps 2 - 5 with the other two people on your list. Add as many others as you need anytime in the future.
May your reflections and writing result in increased compassion for yourself and those you love.
You can find out more about communicating and preserving your legacy (ethical will) at www.Life-Legacies.com or e-mail: Rachael@Life-Legacies.com
Rachael Freed has published several works including Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations and Heartmates: A Guide for the Spouse and Family of the Heart Patient. She is currently working on Harvesting the Wisdom of Our Lives: An Intergenerational Legacy Guide for Seniors and Their Families. Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, Rachael is a clinical social worker, adult educator, and legacy consultant. Her home is Minneapolis, Minnesota. For more information, visit www.Life-Legacies.com and www.heartmates.us.