Many of our loved ones die without leaving behind final words or written instructions about what’s important in life. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Unlike a last will and testament, which is a legal document, an ethical will is a love letter to your family. In short, legal wills bequeath valuables, while ethical wills bequeath values.
“An ethical will reflects the voice of the heart,” said Barry Baines, who wrote “Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper.” “And every ethical will is as unique as a snowflake.”
It’s a way to tell your loved ones about your personal values, reflections, traditions, advice, memories and hope for their future. It also can be a way to tell them about your own ups and downs in life. Perhaps it may tie up loose ends in relationships, or accept that not all loose ends can be resolved.
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Ethical wills can take the form of things like art pieces, a compilation of music, cookbooks with personal recipes, scrapbooks or memory boxes with personalized notes or videos.
“There was a patient several years back who was nearing the end of his life and not going to be able to experience the life of his baby boy,” said Karen Hatfield, team leader for counseling services at Hospice of the Western Reserve. “So he, with the help of family and (hospice) staff, purchased 18 pairs of jeans in all sizes.
“He wrote little notes to be read during milestones in his son’s life and put them in the pocket of the jeans.”
The hospice staff recalled that a message to the child while he was still very young might have read, “Be good for Mommy.”
The ethical will can be something of a chronicle. “We had our volunteers transcribe 100 letters from a husband to a wife during wartime,” said Genny Costanzo, community relations coordinator at hospice. “It was bound and given to the family.”
Or it can be just a simple letter. Laurie Henrichsen, a special events specialist, said that her father wrote notes to her and her brother.
“It restated all of his values and what he saw in each of us,” she recalled. “Anytime I’m going through a crisis in my life, I bring it out and read it. He was the wise person in our family and I looked to him for advice.”
Listening to Henrichsen’s story, Costanzo shook her head.
“I wish I had one from my dad,” she lamented, explaining that her father was killed in a plane crash.
Her experience illustrates the reason people shouldn’t wait to make an ethical will. Tragedies aren’t predictable. If you delay jotting down your hopes and dreams for your children, it may be too late.
Baines, who’s also hospice medical director with two programs in Minneapolis and vice president of Celebrations of Life, an organization committed to helping people preserve their legacies, noted that we all want to be remembered and we all leave something behind. If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will, and they will be lost forever.
“It helps you identify what you value most and what you stand for,” he said. “By articulating what we value now, we can take steps to ensure the continuation of those values for future generations.
“It helps us come to terms with our mortality by creating something of meaning that will live on after we are gone. It provides a sense of completion in our lives.”