Your legacy

Many older adults find their attention drawn to caring for the future. Age makes it clear that our lives are finite. We also recognize that there are things we can do to contribute, beyond our actual time here on earth.

A natural part of the aging process is to review one’s life. That usually involves looking at accomplishments. But it can also include looking at regrets and making amends. Some of us go further and share or invest in projects that will live on after we are gone.

Below are some activities you might consider as you think about your own legacy.

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Conduct a life review

A life review can be done at any age. It simply helps to take a few steps back and put your life into perspective.

Public or private?
Some people wish to share their reviews with family or friends. Others view it as an immensely personal exercise. Making it a private project may allow you to delve deeper without needing to adjust your thoughts based on the expectations of others.

Many options
There’s no “right” medium for a life review:

  • Writing. This can be done as a private reflection, or for others to read. The advantage is that you can do it at any time you are inspired to dip into your review process.
  • Audio recording. This medium allows for more spontaneous expression. You won’t get hung up on concerns like spelling or grammar.
  • Video. This can be very meaningful for sharing your thoughts with family, friends, and perhaps generations not yet old enough to have this type of conversation with you. At the same time, it does include an element of performance that can be limiting or distracting.

There are pros and cons to each medium. It’s your choice which one feels right for you. 

A memoir
One option is to create a memoir, starting at the beginning and moving chronologically through your life. You certainly can do this. And there are even online services that will let you upload photos and publish a small book. But people who write memoirs often get bogged down in detail. Or they hit a rough spot in their life and it’s hard to push past it. Memoirs can be fascinating to share. But they can also become overwhelming.

A review
A review is a much shorter project. Consider thinking about the top 5 crossroads or challenges in your life

  • What were the forces at play in your life at that time?
  • What did you learn from the decisions you made?
  • What are your proud of?
  • What have you thought about in terms of roads not taken?
  • Any insights to share?
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Make amends as needed

“Good judgement is the result of experience and experience the result of bad judgement.”
—    Mark Twain, author

All families have conflict now and then.
Simply put, families are messy. And everyone has things they wish they had done differently, with family and friends. Perhaps in their work life as well. Part of the aging process involves reflection about the past, and sometimes regret for the way things turned out.

Lessons from the end-of-life
A staggering number of families have members who don’t talk to each other and haven’t for years. In the face of a terminal diagnosis, however, those grudges often feel small compared to never seeing each other again. Hospice professionals regularly witness families who forgive each other “at the end” and deeply regret all the time they lost as a family and cannot reclaim.

Asking for forgiveness
Why wait for a terminal diagnosis? If in a review of your life, you realize there are things you would like to be forgiven for, consider these insights from the Stanford Forgiveness project:

  • Be vulnerable and truly acknowledge the action you regret. It is not weakness to admit that you did something you wish you hadn’t. It takes a strong person to admit an error in judgment.
  • Apologize with empathy. “I’m sorry” may work. But what truly creates connection is to express your understanding of the impact of your actions on the other person.
  • Ask for forgiveness and listen. An apology is a one-way communication. By specifically asking for forgiveness and asking how you might make amends, you begin to rebuild trust. This does not mean you have to do whatever they request. But if you can, that speaks volumes. Often simply listening without defenses is enough.
  • Say “Thank you.” Forgiveness conversations often end on a very sweet note. They usually involve tears and sacrifices or giving on both sides. Acknowledge that gift as a way to lay the foundation for a new reconciled relationship.

Extending forgiveness
It may be that you realize you’d like to resolve an unfinished relationship. Perhaps you have decided that the burdens of the anger and hurt are keeping the injury front and present in your life. Forgiveness is a powerful gift, to yourself as well as to the other person.

  • You do not have to forget. Forgiveness is not excusing the other person’s behavior and sweeping it away. It’s a simple acknowledgement that the bad thing happened, but you want to stop carrying the hurt. You value peace in your heart over the harboring of the grievance.
  • Forgiveness is about reclaiming your power. You do not even need to communicate with the person who hurt you to forgive them. Instead, your forgiveness can involve your own focus on the positives that are present in your life despite the setbacks.
  • Acknowledge the courage it takes to forgive. Part of bringing that painful chapter to a close is to recognize that there is great strength in setting down the hurts from the past and walking forward. Forgiveness is an act of courage. Let that be the ending of the story.

If the person involved is not available
Whether you are asking for forgiveness, or extending it, the healing is in your own internal shift. If the person involved is not available—through death or distance—you can still make the changes in your heart. Sometimes it helps to write a letter, or enact a conversation with them. Unilateral forgiveness is extremely effective in the process of creating a legacy.

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Create an ethical will

An ethical will is a way to share your wisdom, giving the bequest of lessons learned and loving insights for those who will follow after you in the family. It can also serve as a way to let future generations know more about you.

An ethical will can be written, but like a life review, it can also be dictated or video recorded.

Thoughts to consider sharing in an Ethical Will:

  • Your happiest moment and why
  • Important crossroads and what you learned
  • Your biggest regret
  • Suggestions when they encounter hardships
  • Your definition of religion, spirituality or faith

Stories about your childhood and family life growing up:

  • Important lessons from your parents, or grandparents
  • A favorite memory of your mother, father, cousins or grandparents
  • How your childhood impacted who you became

Your professional life
Many family members may not know about your successes and challenges in the work world.

  • What is your proudest work achievement?
  • What was your biggest work challenge?
  • Who was your most important mentor?
  • Why did you choose the profession you were in?
  • Any other profession you considered exploring? What attracted you to that one?

Expressions of love
An Ethical Will can also serve as an acknowledgement to members of your family. To each one you might write:

  • My favorite memory of you
  • What I most admire about you
  • My deepest hope for you
  • I would like you to have my [personal item] because ….
  • Please forgive me for … and/or I forgive you for …
  • Thank you for [***some special quality they brought to your life***]
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