As a Baby Boomer member of the Sandwich Generation, perhaps you have already had talks with your aging parents about their wills, beneficiaries, and advanced medical directives for hospital care. But have you discussed an ethical will or the legacy of meaning they wish to leave behind? As parents grow older, it becomes more important to them to be remembered for the life lessons they taught than for the material gifts they leave behind.
Rachel remembers her first experience with just such a legacy. “My mother-in-law was a wise woman. Although she wasn’t able to continue her education beyond high school, her understanding of people rivaled that of any psychologist. She raised my husband, a sickly boy, to be self-confident and to strive for the best. She gave all of her grandchildren unconditional love and support. And she never questioned my place in our family. But I think her wisdom was most valuable to all of the family after she learned that her cancer had metastasized. Before she died, she had long private talks with each one of us, never shying away from the truth, even with her grandchildren. She wanted to leave a lasting personal legacy with every member of her family and a final expression of her love for each of us. I am still strengthened by the memory of my final talk with her, even today.”
What can you do to help create a legacy of meaning within your own family? To get started, here are some suggestions.
1. Spend quality time talking with your parents about the values that are important to them. Ask them specific questions about what ethics have guided them through the years. You probably know some of these answers from having observed them and their role modeling, but the conversations can be further enlightening. As Mimi cared for her mom when she was at the end stages of heart failure, they had long conversations deep into the night. Mimi grew to appreciate her mother as never before. “I used to criticize her for being so frugal. I now realize she was afraid she wouldn’t have enough money to survive. I decided to use the small inheritance she managed to save for me in a way she would appreciate. I’ve opened college bank accounts for the children of my brother, who is struggling financially. I am proud that I can honor my mom in this way.”
2. Talk with your parents about their past and the stories of their lives. Their tales will become a part of how you remember them. Through you, the history of your parents will be preserved from generation to generation. Look through their old photographs and listen to the memories they evoke. Video tape these conversations to have a lasting visual and oral record of them. View these family photos and videos as a slice of life – a gift for the future to be enjoyed by your children and grandchildren. Sarah loved seeing the pictures of her mother as a teenager, having fun with her friends at the beach. “Mom always worked so hard – she had two jobs when we were little – and I think it aged her tremendously. My children see her only as very old and infirm. When I show them pictures of her as a girl, full of energy and enthusiasm, she seems more real to them.”
3. Identify what you consider to be your parents’ personal strengths and talk with them about the strengths they remember in their own parents. Create a family strengths tree, focusing both on strengths that have been passed down and on those that are unique to each family member. You will have a concrete visual profile of your ancestors’ virtues to guide you and your children. Toby recalled the impact that her father’s character had on her. “He taught me so much about how to be a good human being just by the way he treated everyone around him. I try to live up to his standard of morality every day in the way I live my life.”
4. Consult with books or Internet websites to help your parents create an ethical will. Your family will be enriched by their legacy – knowing what they believed in, their values and rituals, and how they lived their lives. Remaining emotionally open during this interactive process can help you better understand your parents as well as yourself and your own personal goals. Shortly before he died, Lynn and her father wrote down some of his thoughts and answers to the questions they had discussed. Now when she feels troubled, she spends time rereading her journal. “Dad lived to age 92. He is always in my mind and I have the words we wrote together to ground me. He was the only one who could make me feel stronger, and I always think about the way he would want me to handle myself in difficult situations.”
Going through the process with your aging parents may even give you a head start on thinking about your own ethical will. What values do you want to pass on to your children? How can you role model these for them today? How can you live your life now as if these values really are important to you? How you answer these kinds of questions to yourself can help you create your own legacy of meaning for your children and grandchildren over the next decades.
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