“Our days are numbered. One of the primary goals in our lives should be to prepare for our last day. The legacy we leave is not just in our possessions, but in the quality of our lives. What preparations should we be making now? The greatest waste in all of our earth, which cannot be recycled or reclaimed, is our waste of the time that God has given us each day.” – Billy Graham
This blog is an excerpt from my upcoming book and includes ways we worked to preserve our family legacy. I hope one of these ideas resonates with you and inspires you to action.
“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited; so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” – Steve Jobs
Most people don’t think to ask our parents, grandparents, and other relatives questions about their lives, stories about the family or about most belongings until it’s too late and they are going through the house with other family members determining what they want to keep; all while grieving the loss of their loved one. In my experience, after observing how people can behave after funerals, right after a loved one passes away isn’t necessarily the best time to make decisions about what to keep as decisions can often be made from a place of emotion and attachment. The result is you can end up with a lot more ‘stuff’ than you need.
I felt so incredibly fortunate to have a mother that knew my dad so well… better than he knew himself! There wasn’t one single item we showed my mom that she couldn’t recite the entire story and history behind it. This fascinated me and warmed my heart that she had all of this history stored in her brain. My objective was to get it out of her head and transfer that knowledge to the rest of us! We learned so much about things that we “thought’ were just things. For example, we learned that a cloth doily found among old ragged sheets and blankets belonged to my great, great grandmother. Who knew?
I learned that a particular knife set I’d always remembered seeing in our kitchen drawers growing up was a wedding gift for my parents. Knowing this and the quality of the knife set, we will definitely keep this in the family. These were a few of the many things for which I gained a fuller appreciation. Knowing the history behind their things now helps me make better decisions moving forward; whether in life or death. I am so glad we cleaned out their home while they were still alive so we could draw out these stories and learn more about their lives together and our ancestors. Some things are sentimental for my parents yet won’t mean much for us in the big scheme of things and will likely be donated. Other things, we will treasure because we now hold a greater appreciation for them.
I believe part of creating a legacy is about preserving your loved one’s most valuable asset; learning about life through their stories, hopes and dreams. This is why we began journaling their stories, insights and memories about their lives growing up. I’ve always been a daddy’s girl. I looked up to my dad. I wanted to make my dad proud. I wanted to be like him. From a daughter’s eyes growing up, I saw my dad only as my dad… not the man he truly was. Imagine that – my dad actually had a title other than daddy.
I learned a lot about him in the months following his 2009 accident through 2012. There were some things I could have lived without: dad’s choices about what to save, his odd sense of humor, his emotional distance, his impulse to please and help others to the detriment of himself and family and his inconsistency in walking the talk with his financial beliefs. Of course, there were things I admired and respected about my dad: he always provided for us and took his responsibilities seriously. He believed in education and lifelong learning. He proudly served his country for 20 years in the military. He sacrificed some of his dreams for the sake of the family. He always made me feel safe and protected. My mom and dad had been through so much together and he was always, always by her side. Between 2009 and 2012, she was by his side in his greatest time of need.
During these times of stress, emotion and sometimes-heavy hearts, is not the time to create a will documenting your wishes. Sometimes, people find themselves in situations where loved ones really need to know your wishes. What if you were in an accident tomorrow and could not speak for yourself. Do you have a designated Power of Attorney who knows what your wishes are up to and including …death? Based on an unrelated surgery a few years back, my dad spent quality time putting together everything we needed. My dad documented his life including website user names and passwords, what associations he belonged to and their contact information, what life insurance policies he had for him and my mom and their account numbers and company contact information. He documented his brokerage, bank and credit card accounts and account numbers, information about their homes. He even documented his life chronology including timelines for all his addresses from birth to present. He included his employer list history, in chronological order, including addresses, pension information, years worked and salary history. He even documented all the places he went TDY (temporary duty) in the military. My dad was prepared for anything! He gave me this thick sealed envelope and I put it among my important documents. This is probably one of the best things he ever did… aside from having my sister and me.
This life documentation proved invaluable December 22nd, 2009, the date of his car accident that ultimately resulted in his premature death. I implore you to document your life history and get estate planning in order. Do it today. Married, single, kids, no kids, homes, no homes – doesn’t matter. You have a responsibility to yourself and family to document your wishes, decide ahead of time who you want to act on your behalf either as a health care power of attorney or general power of attorney. Do you want doctors to save your life at all costs; even if it means living in a persistent, vegetative state? Do you want your closest relative/next of kin to make decisions for you? In what circumstances do you want others to make decisions for you? Do you trust they will act in your best interests?
My dad documented all of this in the unlikely event we would need to open the envelope. As his Power of Attorney, having this information, his POA documents and will was like winning the lottery when I needed to open the envelope. As a patient, the list of addresses and dates he’s lived since birth and his entire work history was immensely helpful to his healing and recovery. I shared this information with his occupational and speech therapists, which helped determine his brain, and memory patterns, decipher fact from fiction, and aid in figuring out how he was putting his ‘brain puzzle’ together.
Sometimes, he would get his facts jumbled. He didn’t know what year it was so we could start talking about things going on from his life during the timeframe he thought it was, and that was so helpful to know so we could guide the discussions and exercises.
Now, on to more positive subjects on the matter of creating our legacy! One of the most powerful things I did was helped my parents document their hopes and dreams, fears, lessons learned, traditions they cherished and a host of other things.
Through this experience, I learned so much about my dad. I felt a strong innate need to help my parents find power and healing in their stories. I wanted to preserve our family history and I wanted to help them feel complete when they decide to leave this the physical realm. I helped my dad, who is always in his ‘mind’; get out of his head and into his heart. I learned that by asking him specific questions like: “if he could change anything in his life, what would it be and why” to “what his favorite childhood tradition was”, I helped him feel and heal while documenting his life. My mom could write so I gave her a book and she went to town! I gained an appreciation for my mom’s incredible strength and knowledge of minute details of their life. I learned my dad had never been on a real vacation and he wanted to go to Yellowstone. His favorite song was: “Man in my Little Girl’s Life.”
The most valuable advice he received when he was young was from his dad. His dad taught him how it’s not what you say but how you say things that matter most. My dad considered life’s greatest gift the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When I asked my dad if you could keep only one family photo, which would it be, he said he would keep a picture with him, my mom, my sister and I. When I asked my dad what people have made the greatest impact on your life, he said the Tooth fairy, Santa Claus, his mom and dad, his Grandpa Eulin, Professor Smith, his Director of Music in High School, and Chaplain Johnson from Right Patterson AFB.
When I asked my dad what he was especially proud of professionally, he told me about the time he felt most valued and trusted. With a lump in his throat, he told me that he was the 22nd USAF person in Iceland and had top clearance. He had access to anything he needed. If he could have a do over with his career choice, he said he could have gotten a degree in and been a teacher full time. His favorite Christmas carol was “The Little Drummer Boy”. My dad expressed vulnerability when sharing with me the one time he saw his father cry and what he learned from this experience. These are just some of the things I learned about my dad through asking him questions. I feel fortunate to have documented this and other things and be able to document his life story.
Sometimes, when my dad and I were alone together in the car going from appointment to appointment, he felt compelled to share some of his inner most feelings. I noticed that the night before when we would respond to questions I asked him about his life (and I captured responses in writing), he would recall the question and want to talk further about it. What I learned about some of my dad’s innermost fears, dreams, and regrets was just how vulnerable, ‘broken’ and sad he had been. I felt surprised that he would speak from his heart so openly with me. I think he felt safe and trusted me to share his deepest feelings with me. A part of me felt additional burdens with information he shared with me and these are things I will take with me to the grave.
As he would share so profoundly with me, I thanked him for sharing with me and expressed gratitude for raising us and providing for us as he did. I affirmed he was a great father. I learned my dad was an actual man; a human being separate from being my dad. There was a lot about him I didn’t really know until now and I was grateful to have a different perspective about my dad.
My mom, too, would share some of her innermost fears and deep, hurtful things from her childhood, when we were driving together. As a result, I gained a deeper appreciation and understanding for her as a person. I felt immense sadness and anger for what she endured and, with my maternal instinct, wanted so much to take her pain away. Through these valuable insights, I was able to put many of my own puzzle pieces together about why my childhood was the way it was, why they were they way they were and coping mechanisms they used throughout their lives. I felt profound compassion and love for my parents. It helped us all heal. That is a gift.
As a result of the value I found through this process, I was inspired to resume a practice I started many years ago for my kids. They don’t know it but I started a tradition of writing my kids annual letters about the year, key milestones we experienced, the things I was most proud of that year and included a few key things they wrote, made or did that year. I sealed up the envelopes, labeled them for the year and put instructions for the kids to open their envelopes when they turned 21 (or when I gave it to them). Somewhere along the line, things ‘happened’ and I didn’t make time for this anymore. Given everything I’ve learned about my parents and reflecting as a parent myself, I feel one of the greatest gifts we can give our children, other than values, core beliefs and life skills to become responsible adults one day is our heartfelt feelings about our love for them, how proud we are of them, recalling favorite childhood memories and our hopes and dreams for them. I can’t imagine how long I would probably still be crying had I had something like this from my parents. Especially now, as a parent myself, knowing and feeling the immense, unconditional love from my parents and for my children… If you take one action as a result of reading this newsletter, this would be it. Taking time to ask (or document on your own) about their earliest childhood memory, their greatest accomplishment, and hundreds of other possible questions will make a profound impact on your peace of mind and strengthen your relationships.
I recommend taking time with your family and start new traditions of sharing! Opening your heart and helping others see things through your eyes are powerful. It’s the kind of thing that connects people, brings people together and ultimately creates memories and bonds you will have forever.
I did these things because of a tragic accident, a cancer diagnosis and my parents’ overall declining health. I was lucky. I really was lucky because I opened my eyes to legacy building possibilities. Had I not gone through this situation, I’m unsure whether I would have done these things with my parents… at least when I did. My hope is that you learn from my experiences and take time in the coming year (or even during the holidays) to build onto your legacy and the legacy of your elders. Remember, someday will be our last day on Earth. Someday could be today, a year from now, a decade from now, 50 years from now, or tomorrow. I promise this is time well spent!