With the Trump administration now sworn in, there are numerous debates on whether the estate tax will be repealed. The focus of the debates is often what a person has a right to pass on to his or her kids and grandkids and whether family fortunes can remain within the family regardless of who earned them.
These debates are necessary ones. However, when people are given a choice between passing onto their kids their money and possessions or their wisdom and life lessons, they overwhelmingly choose wisdom and life lessons. In other words, would you rather be remembered for being financially better off than those around you or for being a person of uncommon kindness, wisdom and strength of character?
As a professional in the areas of grief, loss and transition, I have heard from many people about what they want to pass along to their loved ones.
Your Legacy: More Than Dollars
Certainly, money is important. But significance does not necessarily come with wealth. It comes from making a difference in the lives of others, having an impact, leaving the world a better place and creating a living legacy that survives our physical absence.
He ended with his most important message, that although he was imperfect, he loved them deeply and always did his best to show it.
Some people are able to do this in public and prominent ways. For most of us, though, it is accomplished in our personal relationships, and especially within our families. We pass on who we are, what we believe in and what we dream for our descendants.
This passing on of a legacy can be enhanced as we hear the eulogies, stories and memories that are told when a person dies. However, the deceased has no control over what will be said and those words are often forgotten before long. You may wish to create a legacy in a more conscious fashion, by taking purposeful actions now to pass on the wisdom and lessons that are most important to you.
A Legacy in a Letter
Perhaps I can best illustrate this with a true story.
When my son Carl was born, his great-grandpa Ben was 96. Ben wrote a letter to Carl, sealed it in an envelope, and directed us to give it to Carl when he turned 20 on June 20 of the year 2000. (Ben loved that alliteration of numbers!) When Carl opened the envelope on his 20th birthday, this is what he read:
As I now look at my grandson, who is only a few months old, I visualize his future. You are now in best of care by a good mother and father. Your carefree days will lead you to your school books and a more serious life. After a few years have gone by, you will feel yourself standing alone. Scripture says it is not good for man to live alone, and a new problem is at hand. So look around, choose well and a long happy married life is ahead. But remember the serious agreement you have made: For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part. When the Lord calls for one of you, a new problem will show up — you will be alone again. So my advice is: Stick to your faith, and trust in the Lord.
Your Great-Grandpa Ben, age 96
In this simple letter, Ben’s love and faith came alive 17 years after his death, and that letter is still a treasured possession. Can you write a letter to your kids? Your grandkids? Your great-grandkids? Like Ben’s, it doesn’t have to be long or flowery. It just needs to include some of the lessons that are important to you.
Using Media for Your Legacy
Diane found out she was dying at the age of 48, when her twin daughters were 11. She recorded three videos and directed that one would be shown to them shortly after she died, one when they turned 16 and one when they turned 22 or graduated from college.
In each video, she gave her daughters the wisdom and lessons she wished them to have at that point in their lives, even though Diane knew she wouldn’t be there to deliver them herself.
At the age of 74, Phil decided to create a multimedia autobiography. He used newspaper clippings, old audio recordings, videos, pictures and written essays. He wanted his kids, his grandkids and eventually his great-grandkids to understand who he was and how he lived. He wanted to explain his philanthropic interests, so perhaps they could carry on the good work he believed in. He wanted to spare them from some of the mistakes he’d made in life by honestly relating those mistakes and what he learned from them. He asked their forgiveness for anything he’d done that hurt them. He ended with his most important message — that although he was imperfect, he loved them deeply and always did his best to show it. He said his fondest hope was that the love of the family would continue on for generations to come.
His Message in a Song
Music was an integral part of Michael’s life. Although he couldn’t make a living out of music, he worked at a job during the day so he could play music at night and on the weekends. As his kids grew, he guided them in choosing an instrument to play and made sure they had lessons and outlets for performance. When he found out that he had a terminal illness, Michael wrote a song for his family and recorded it with friends. The words conveyed his love and dreams for all of them. It gave them permission to cry and miss him, and yet permission to go on and live as fully as they could, knowing he was always right there with them, as close as a melody.
When the song played at his service, tears flowed. Afterwards, the recording of their dad singing to them was one of his kids’ most treasured possessions.
Pass It On
These are just some of the ideas for how people have passed on their most important and enduring legacy — their wisdom, lessons, hopes and dreams. What about you? How would you like to be remembered, and in what ways can you contribute valuable wisdom to the next generations?
You don’t have to be old or dying to start. Do it now. Create a living legacy of meaning for those you love.
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