What Is Your Legacy?
Leaving Behind Wonderful Stories (and Maybe Less Stuff)
Although we don’t generally like to think about this truth, we are all going to die. I have been thinking about my own mortality recently, perhaps because I’ve lost a number of loved ones in the past two years. Some of them I was prepared to lose, and with others I was shocked. These losses have me reflecting on the legacies we might want to leave after we die. What do we want others to say about us? What parts of us do we want them to hold in their hearts as they go forward without us?
When I die, I hope my loved ones sit around telling hilarious stories of the goofy and stupid things I said and did. I want them to laugh and cry as they share stories and memories of the person I was and the things I did with my life. I hope they will remember how I cared, listened, and passionately created a life of contribution and service to others, as well as how I dared to love and thrive after living through many challenges.
Because of my interest in our homes and the items we live with (and those we choose not to live with), my mind also goes to the physical side of what I will leave behind. I’ve decided that I do not want to burden my children with the onerous task of sorting through many belongings after I pass. When I die, I hope they’ll take anything they may want to keep and then call The Furniture Bank, Volunteers of America, or Goodwill and donate all the rest. This focus doesn’t mean that I live a Spartan lifestyle, throw away everything, or refuse to buy new belongings, of course. But I do try not to hold onto piles, stacks, and boxes of unneeded items that could create a formidable task for the people who love me.
If you’ve had to clear the belongings of a beloved one who has passed, you know what gut-wrenching work this can be, requiring courage, commitment, and time. Many people describe the pain of getting rid of these items with phrases like “It feels like I’m erasing her” or “I felt like I was losing him again with each shirt I placed in the donation box.” For some people, it can take years to sort through the belongings of a beloved deceased relative. Many people would rather do anything else with their time than sort through these belongings—and the accompanying grief.
In my former neighborhood was a house filled with the deceased owner’s belongings. Every few months, his son would come by and open the garage, do lawn care, return the items to the garage, and quickly depart. This happened for eight years, and last time I passed the house, it still hadn’t been cleared out. I know the son deeply loved his dad, because I distinctly remember the day we were introduced. My heart goes out to this man who cannot bring himself to process his deceased father’s belongings.
A participant at a recent workshop I led shared that she spent an entire year sorting through a deceased loved one’s belongings; she now feels a different sort of grief because she knows cannot get that year back. That experience made her realize she could make different choices for her life. She does not want to burden her children with excessive belongings to sort through, so she’s currently clearing the items she no longer needs, uses, or loves. This past Christmas, she treated her family to fun outings and experiences rather than belongings that, she acknowledged, no one needed.
What will people say about you and your life after you pass? People often worry that they haven’t done enough “big things” with their lives, but the everyday, simple interactions can create the most enduring memories for people. As Maya Angelou says, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
All the funerals and celebration of life ceremonies I have attended seem to reinforce this quote. Often with laughter and tears, we share stories about how our deceased loved one touched us with his or her essence, words, actions, and presence. These experiences have reminded me that the deep meaning of our lives often arises in the quality of our relationships and the experiences we create.
Although we cannot spare our loved ones pain when we pass, we can lighten their burden by streamlining the overwhelming “legacy” of our stuff. Rather than having our relatives sort through boxes of things and wonder why we held onto them, we can clear away excess belongings right now. When we are of sound mind and body, we can make great choices about what belongings we no longer need, use, or love, and what items inspire us now. We can even give certain items to loved ones who might appreciate or enjoy them more.
I recognize that it can be emotional and courageous work to let go of things that we have attachments to, even when we don’t use or look at them. Yet this letting go could free our relatives and friends to focus on the legacy of memories, love, laughter, and service we have created in their lives.
Death can be a great teacher about how we want to live. It can help us clarify what we value most, including our relationships, activities, and the ways we support others. Death can teach us to feel profoundly grateful for all aspects of our lives, especially the seemingly ordinary moments. What do you want to leave behind? It can help you to know the answers, so that you can align your vision and actions with the legacy you want to leave.