Living and Leaving Your Legacy

My cousin Carol died recently. Six years ago, the doctors told her she had pulmonary fibrosis -- a diagnosis with no cure. All they could do was make her as comfortable as possible.

I visited Carol often during her last two years. Some days watching her gasp for breath frightened me. How could I help her? What could I do to ease Carol's fears? How could I assist her as she faced death?

As her condition worsened, Carol asked her own questions. "How do I want to be remembered? How do I handle my unresolved issues? What messages do I want to leave for my loved ones?"

Together we embarked on a sacred journey filled with meaningful moments and a lot of hard work.

The first project Carol tackled was her autobiography. She started by outlining the pivotal moments in her life-those events which defined her days on earth. Then she began the task of filling in the blank spaces. Carol documented her personal family history from the time she was born and recollected her joys and sorrows. We discussed her favorite memories and most difficult challenges. At times walking back in her life seemed hard for her, but she continued on and, in the end, compiled a comprehensive history for her family. Working together gave her the opportunity to perform a meaningful review of her life.

Carol was blessed with fourteen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren and over the years had accumulated thousands of photographs of them. She decided to sort them out and to give each child his or her pictures. It took several days for us to put the photos into individual piles. While browsing through the massive collection, Carol often stopped and shared a story. These happy memories left her smiling. When we finished, we filled an envelope with photographs for each grandchild. At first Carol asked me to send them to her grandchildren right away but later chose to wait until after she was gone.

On another visit, Carol told me that she wanted to go through letters, cards, programs, and other special papers she had saved. I hauled out the three large bins, and we began her sentimental journey back in time. She was determined to read each item, regardless of how long it took. Looking at these precious mementos brought laughter and tears. She came across her old prom dance card, letters from her beloved aunts, handmade cards created by her sons when they were little, and a host of other treasures. Some she clearly was not prepared to part with; others she reluctantly threw away.

Carol faced many difficult issues. As she became sicker, her family felt she needed to consider hospice. I also knew how important it would be for Carol to have closure on certain aspects of her life and talk about her impending death.

It was a dreary day in September when I broached these subjects one by one. We began by talking about the anger she harbored toward someone who had brought her heartache. I suggested writing him a letter and putting down on paper all she was feeling. Carol agreed and wrote non-stop until she finished. She then looked up, read me the letter, tore it up and said, "Now I know exactly what I need to say to him, and I will." In this way she was able to come to terms with this and other unresolved issues in her life.

By the end of that day, we had discussed her increasingly debilitating disease and how she was feeling. Since caring for herself was becoming more difficult, I brought up the subject of hospice. Carol told me she would consider it but asked not to discuss it further at that time. However, she talked about her fear of dying -- of how painful it was to think of not being in her children's lives, of not watching her grandchildren grow up and get married -- the finality of it all. For me, the conversation ranked among the heaviest of my life. For Carol, verbalizing her feelings seemed tremendously liberating.

We had talked about writing an ethical will, which is a spiritual legacy that includes reflections on a person's life, ethics, values, life lessons, hopes and dreams. This past December, Carol told me she was ready to write hers. During that week, every time Carol mentioned a saying she lived by, something she had learned, or anything that would be material for her ethical will, I suggested she write it down. After several days and many thought-filled sheets of paper, we discussed each point and eventually combined them to create her ethical will. When she finished she said, "I thought this was going to be a gift for my family and friends, but I realize that the gift is one I have given myself."

Having taught legacy classes to healthy people ages thirty-eight to ninety, I have noticed a vast difference between working on these exercises and projects well in advance in a non-hurried fashion, as opposed to the urgency in Carol's situation. We knew that her time was limited, and she wanted nothing more than to finish those tasks on her list.

My last visit with Carol was in March. By then, her condition had worsened and while her energy had waned, she was determined to complete the last and probably the hardest of the projects. Originally she had hoped to write individual letters to each of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Instead she typed one letter for all of them and then on copies handwrote separate notes including a personal, endearing memory and a loving message to each. She put them in the envelopes of photographs and felt relieved to have finished that huge job.

Through the years, Carol had commented about the many items that decorated her home. She knew that in some families, fights occur about one's inheritance -- not just money but possessions as well. In her case, she wondered if anyone in her family would even care about her treasures. Regardless, she wanted to leave special people in her life her fine jewelry and all of her favorite collectibles -- clowns and figurines, assorted knick knacks such as fancy china tea cups and saucers, paintings, and other items she cherished. The process of going through her belongings and labeling them was emotional and exhausting, but she was determined to get it done and she did.

When everything was completed, Carol expressed relief -- as though a tremendous burden had been lifted. She had reviewed the highlights as well as the low moments in her life and had come to the conclusion that she had lived a wonderful, mostly happy life with almost no regrets. Carol understood the meaning of what she had accomplished and knew that she had mattered to her family and friends. In her mind, her affairs were in order.

The last text I received from Carol was on the day her sons had arrived from California. I had written to ask if their visit was all she had dreamed it would be. She immediately responded. "And more. There are not enough words to describe all this love between us. So blessed." Hours later, she slipped into a coma.

Carol died the next morning. Her family gathered in Cleveland from all over the country. On the day after her funeral, I asked them to come to her condominium. Fifteen of us sat in her living room with her nine-month-old great-granddaughter crawling in the middle of the circle.
I began by explaining the work Carol and I had done prior to her passing, sharing meaningful details of the process. Afterwards, each person told a story about Carol. We laughed together at the funny recollections. Several spoke of precious times with her which brought tears to our eyes. Our shared memories helped bring her spirit into the room in a loving and powerful way.

When we finished, we sat in silence for a few moments -- each of us reflecting on our own private recollections. I then read Carol's ethical will to her loved ones. In the otherwise silent room, her words came alive. Her profound messages reached deep into everyone's soul. The impact left us speechless.

When I step back and reflect on my unique experience with Carol, I am struck by its power. Spending concentrated time with her and then later with Carol's family and friends helped me to understand the tremendous scope of the work we did and the value of what we had accomplished.

The way Carol lived her life and the lessons she imparted became her legacy. It was a privilege for me to help her leave her loved ones with a priceless gift that will remain forever in our hearts.


Merle R. Saferstein, author of 'Room 732,' teaches a course entitled Living and Leaving Your Legacy to people of all ages. As the former director of educational outreach at the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in South Florida, she helped Holocaust survivors pass on their legacy to students and teachers for twenty-six years. Since 1974 she has completed over 350 volumes of personal journals and is currently working to compile them.