I’ve had the pleasure of working with a hospice family who has embraced the gravity of the situation by having difficult conversations, making decisions and plans, and are now savoring every minute together before their last one occurs. The patriarch of the family is dying and his family has rallied around him. This couple and their adult children, and even their older grandchildren, have accepted his diagnosis and have come to an understanding of his prognosis. They hold back nothing; they talk about it all in the presence of each other, in audible voices. No one in this family whispers the word “cancer”; they address it out loud.
I recently spoke with this man and his wife about leaving a legacy for their kids and grandkids. It’s something I offer to do with hospice patients who are amenable. Sometimes I help a patient write a letter to a spouse. Other times, I make a collage of photos and voice recordings put to music that family members can run on a computer loop when they want to see and hear their loved ones. Many times, though, people are reluctant to do legacy work because they feel that it will worsen or lengthen their loved ones’ grief.
To my surprise, this man said that he’s already written letters to his adult children, which they will receive from his wife after his funeral. He’s written letters to his grandchildren to be given to them when they reach milestones: 16, high school graduation, 1st year of college, marriage, birth of their first child, etc. He’s included musings and wisdom from his nearly 60 years on the planet. He’s written his obituary although he wonders who will really care about all the things his wife suggested he include in it. He told me privately that he’s also written a love letter to his wife which he’s asked a friend to give to her at a prescribed future date.
In the meantime, this family has had open communication throughout his treatment and now hospice experience. They have had the blessing of coherence and time to say things they want to say, and they have said everything. With all of the plans made, this family can now concentrate on the immediate moments of their lives – enjoying baseball games and picnics and whatever else they have the energy to do. These letters that this man’s family will receive after his death will likely provide his loved ones with great comfort. These are his messages, from his heart, that they will be able to hold in their hands any time they want. They will be able to read his words and in some cases hear his voice (recordable books for kids are a fantastic invention!).
We so often think that death is the finale. That once we die, there’s nothing left of us except for some photos and a few good memories that a handful of people will hold onto. But legacy work is more intentional. It gives you the opportunity to put into words things you may not feel comfortable saying out loud or in person; things others may feel uncomfortable hearing. The movie “Tuesdays with Morrie” contains one of my favorite lines, spoken by Morrie Schwartz: “Death ends a life. It doesn’t end a relationship.”
With legacy work, the relationship continues perhaps more easily and more comforted when there’s something tangible to hold and read like a letter, or a journal, or a card that contains the sentiments of someone who has gone on before us to wait patiently until we join them.
Caring Choices encourages open conversation and sharing of feelings long before a terminal diagnosis enters your life. We can help have those difficult conversations and we can help you begin your legacy work.
(c) 2014 Caring Choices