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Lives Are More Than the Things We Collect

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Question: My husband of 43 years died about two years ago. I am just going through his papers in several file cabinets in my crowded garage. He never threw away a piece of paper. I am in the process of saving and tossing – doing most of the latter. It struck me: Is this what life is about? Are we but filing cabinets and at some time, someone will decide what has been important in our life and what has not? Your thoughts?

Answer: What a moment you’ve had. There are many embedded questions in your experience with the filing cabinets: What is the purpose of my life? Has my life made a difference? Will I be remembered, and how?

Most of us want to be remembered by family members: brothers, sisters, cousins, children and grandchildren. Experiences can be documented in photo albums or by creating books using online programs such as Snapfish. And then there is the question, “What is it they will recall about us?”

We also may want institutions to remember us. Examples include universities, hospitals, churches, synagogues, theaters, museums, opera and ballet companies, shelters and music centers. All need dollars and volunteers.

Most of us want to be remembered by friends. Will they recall the good times shared, our sense of humor, love of adventure, or just being there for them in times of need? I have never met a grandparent who didn’t want to be remembered by grandchildren. They give us a sense of legacy – a continuation of the life cycle, hopefully with some of our values.

Although grandchildren love gifts, and big ones, over time that’s not what they typically remember. It’s the experiences that count – planting a garden together, taking a short trip, hiking and fishing in the High Sierras. It’s the day at Disneyland or the first train ride.Creating memories is what grandparents do.

One of the most cherished and meaningful gifts that one can leave to family and friends is an ethical will. This is not a legal document but rather a document about values, blessings, life’s lessons, hopes and dreams for the future. It also may be about forgiveness. An ethical will typically is written by people at a turning point in their lives or when facing challenging situations.

Ethical wills usually are shared during the writer’s lifetime. For more information, go to ethicalwill.com/index.html.

Being remembered for the “big things” accomplished is easy. We easily recall inventors, war heroes, peace makers, authors, advocates, elected officials, business leaders, artists and musicians.

Most of us don’t fall into the “big” category. Yet we can be remembered for the smaller things in life by the people whose lives we have touched directly or indirectly. We may raise money for good causes, sit on boards, visit sick friends, teach a child to read, mentor a student, feed the homeless or help someone get a job.

We have no control over what gets saved in our file cabinets. Our lives likely will be measured by what we do and the relationships we’ve nurtured. Here are some questions that may help us take stock:

  • Who are the people whose lives I have touched?
  • What can I do today and tomorrow that will make a difference?
  • What are my most cherished photos? Can I duplicate them and send them to those important in my life?
  • How am I perceived?
  • Who are the important people in my life? Have I told them?
  • How do I want to be remembered?

These questions might be useful to discuss with others. Venues to talk about legacy and meaning of life might be at a book group meeting, in a religious setting, at a senior center, in an educational environment or in your living room.

Thank you for your provocative question, one that takes us to the essence of life. Best wishes on the journey and good luck with your garage.

Copyright 2011 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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