07/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Legacy Writing and Self-Care

What is the relationship between self care and writing legacy letters? Before addressing a group of professional caregivers, my preparation was an opportunity to reassess how legacy writing nourishes our souls, how legacy writing is a component of spiritual self-care.

One way to promote spiritual well-being is through the writing of an ethical will [legacy letter].
It can be a wonderful gift to your family at the end of your life,
But I think its primary importance is what it can give you in the midst of life.
- Andrew Weil, MD

Though we're not all professional caregivers, we all care for and about others: we care for partners, children and grandchildren, friends, and those in need in our communities and beyond. Legacy writing gives us a way to express our caring as we care for ourselves.

We hear a lot about the importance of physical self care. The media exhorts us to eat right, exercise regularly, care for our outer appearance. But we're rarely encouraged to care for our feelings and minds, to deepen and heal our relationships, to express gratitude for the blessings in our lives, or to live our lives purposefully.

One of my goals for the professional caregivers at the workshop was to support and encourage their own self-care. Especially in these economic times, we are plagued with personal fears about survival. Caregivers are not exempt! I asked them to write a blessing (for the body of a legacy letter) to someone they love. This caregiver wrote to her husband who'd been laid off and was being offered a new job:

Dear Mike,

We have been through a lot together and my love for you just keeps growing. As you decide on what job offer is best, may God be with you and guide your decision.

You have worked so hard to find this new job -- thank you. I knew when you got up at your regular time the day after you were laid off to start your job search, we would be fine. Now as you start your new job and new chapter in your career, may you begin with anticipation, excitement and confidence.

You are a hard worker, are fun to have around and easy to work with. May you gain new friends, new professional relationships, and knowledge in your field. I know you will succeed and do great! I love you! Gayle

Gayle sent me this email after the workshop:

Rachael -- I gave my husband, Mike, the Legacy Letter. He was very touched, even a little tear in his eye. He took a job with __ , a very good fit for him. The offer came yesterday and he had 24 hours to say yes or no. He begins in a couple weeks. It is a big relief for our family and prayers answered for us. -- Gayle

In a wholly different circumstance, a woman wrote a legacy love letter to her granddaughter to express her concern:

My wonderful first Granddaughter --

I was so excited when you were born. I raced out to buy you a red and white smocked dress and a pair of red patent leather shoes. One of the dolls I made for you is now wearing those clothes. I held you and rocked you and sent you all the love I could. I have watched you grow into a beautiful, talented young lady.

I know a granddaughter never likes to hear that she is like her grandmother, but I see in you so much of myself at your age...I worry about you -- my heart aches wishing I could protect you. I know that I can't. I can be there for you if you will let me. I understand a great deal of your pain. I am aware of the conflict in your home. I am aware of situations you are faced with, situations that no child should ever have to deal with.

I want you to know I had a father who was an alcoholic and I suffered much of the same hurt and pain you are experiencing. I would like to bless you with the ability to be strong and insightful. May you be able to see that none of what is happening is your fault. Your mother and father have their own hurts from their growing up experiences. I bless you with the ability to know how much you are loved. I stand on the sidelines willing to be called in at any time for any reason.

With love, Your Grandmother

Sitting in a legacy writing circle last month, she wrote about the results of her legacy letter and her relationship with her granddaughter today:

My granddaughter: I love her as I never believed I could -- the depth of my love for her is beyond imagination. She is beautiful and wonderful, and also smart. She just finished her freshman year at college with a 3.6 grade point, on a full scholarship.

It has not always been easy to say wonderful things about her.

About five years ago I wrote her a letter
and told her of my love and concern for her and that I would do anything for her. I was afraid to send the letter, partially out of fear of rejection and family issues. As her life spun out of control, I decided I must reach out to her, so I sent the letter. The day she received it, she called me and asked me to meet her for lunch. She told me never to be afraid to tell her anything and thanked me for the letter.

Time passed. One day I was asked by her mother to pick her up at school because she was stoned. I said, "Only if I can talk to her about treatment." She agreed. I picked her up. She went into treatment, embraced the program and changed her life.

Our relationship has grown and gotten even better with time. When she was leaving for her summer job, she hugged me and said, "Gramma, just remember, I would do anything for you."

What more could I ever ask? All because of one letter.

Finally, an example illustrating how legacy writing can heal loss and deepen intimate connections. A Boston area professional caregiver who facilitates a therapeutic writing group with cancer patients:

I read Freed's HuffingtonPost "Remembering People on Memorial Day," and asked group members to write about someone they had loved and lost. Linda wrote about her therapist, Julie: how Julie had helped her with severe depression and how suddenly one day when Linda knocked on Julie's door, she did not answer. Linda learned that Julie had been diagnosed with advanced cancer and died shortly thereafter. Linda was never able to say goodbye to her. Three months later Linda herself was diagnosed with cancer.

As Linda read aloud her writing generated from Freed's post, she wept and wept, though the loss had occurred over 5 years ago. Linda talked about how difficult it was that she had never known anyone who knew Julie and how lonely she'd been with her loss. Then an older woman sitting next to Linda leaned toward her, placed her hand on Linda's shoulder, and in a very soft voice said, 'I lived next door to Julie and I knew her.' Another woman sitting across the circle said, 'My children went to school with Julie's children and I knew her as well.' Linda's face, despite the tears, suddenly lit up. Her grief hadn't disappeared, but now she had companions with whom she could share the loss.

"Sharing doubles the joy and halves the pain." - Anonymous

Some suggestions/action steps:

1. Choose someone you care for who is in need at this time.
2. Take a few minutes to reflect and jot notes about who this person is, and why you care about him/her.
3. Write a blessing to the person expressing your love and your deepest hope for him/her. Take no more than five minutes to write. If you've never written a blessing, here's a tip to get started: Begin with the words "May you..." or "May God..."
4. Use the blessing as the body of a letter. Give yourself just ten minutes to write the salutation, an introduction, and a short conclusion. Be sure to date your letter.

May your writing deepen your relationship
with someone for whom you care, and feed both of your spirits.

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