END-OF-LIFE LEGACY WORK: A PATH TO PEACE, JOY, AND PURPOSE
Updated: Jul 20
Re-post from Death Doula Network International
May 3, 2023 Written by Diane R. Button, MA, Dear Death: Finding Meaning in Life, Peace in Death, and Joy in an Ordinary Day
Sometimes you have to look for legacy projects, but sometimes they find you. In my case, it was someone else’s story that I unexpectedly fell into that started my journey with legacy work. I met my husband, Mark, when he was in the darkest time of his life. He had suddenly lost his wife, Ronnie, to a brain aneurysm. When she died, she was pregnant… with triplets. Mark was devastated. He had lost anything of any earthly value to him and was left to begin the process of learning to live again without Ronnie and the family they had dreamed of.
Somehow, I was able to sit comfortably with Mark, fully aware that grief was our constant companion. It was always the three of us, with grief being relentless and dominant. This went on for a long, long time, but despite the deep sadness, our conversations became beautiful, raw, and real. There was no hiding his broken heart, even as he was finding himself falling in love with me. It may sound complicated, but what I saw clearly was Mark’s deep ability to love and the joy that he had found in being in a lifetime partnership. That was attractive to me.
Fast forward to the day I was giving birth to our first daughter, Carly. As I was being wheeled into my room on the 3rd floor, it struck me that I was right down the hall from where Ronnie had died. The two conflicting emotions Mark must have been feeling were not lost on me. I thought about her a lot that day, and how life can change so fast. Right after Carly was born I was inspired by an idea that would turn out to be a legacy project for our entire family.
Later that day, I wrote Carly a letter describing my emotions, how sweet it felt to have her in my arms, and about my hopes and dreams for her life. I later wrote on the back of the envelope, “To open on the day your first child is born.” This started a tradition, and now each of our children has their own “Letter Box” filled with cards and letters to open on the milestones of their lives, on birthdays, when they are having difficult times, and more. There is one very important one in the pile, for them to open upon my death.
There is more, as there is to every story, but suffice to say that this concept of preparing for end-of-life through legacy became almost urgent to me, and has guided me over time to address the power and meaning found in each client’s story. I want to know them. What is their story? What will be their legacy?
From my experience, the most beautiful legacies are not about money and possessions. A poignant and heartfelt legacy comes from within. It’s not about what you did, but who you are. It’s not about what you chose to do, but why you chose to do it. This is where your heart shines. A legacy doesn’t have to be about monumental accomplishments. Some of the most beautiful, lasting, and profound legacies involve people who lived a life of everyday goodness, humbly filling their days with small acts of kindness, and touching lives in simple ways.
Legacy projects are as varied as the people they represent. Your tangible legacy may have to do with baking, car racing, fly fishing, sewing, gardening, identifying stars, writing, ice skating, teaching, volunteering, or creating pieces of art. Anything you are passionate about can be made into a legacy project, so keep an open mind and contemplate ideas based on your own life story and personal interests.
As a death doula, I’m always listening and paying attention, looking for legacy projects and ideas tucked within the stories my clients share. There are dozens included in Dear Death: A Workbook and Companion Guide, but here are a few of my favorites:
1. Create a Letter Box, filled with letters to be opened on the milestones in your loved one’s life. Mail and postmark them to your home address if you want. Having the date on the letters adds to the sentiment when they are opened, perhaps many years later. You can get a complete list of questions as inspiration for each letter box letter in the book, The Letter Box: A Story of Enduring Love.
2. Write or create personalized letters or cards to certain people to be passed out after your death.
3. Create a memory box where loved ones leave a written memory when they visit the dying person that can be later made into a book. As a doula, I’ve witnessed these letters bringing comfort to family members, too. Photos are also wonderful items for a memory box.
4. Record and edit a video message for loved ones or to be played at your memorial.
5. Choose personal gifts from around the home for specific people in your life, wrapped and with cards to open after your death. I find this to be a deeply meaningful project for homebound clients. It’s filled with purpose and each item they choose has yet another story attached to it, offering more opportunity to go deep and hear more slices of my client’s life.
6. Design a book or a calendar with your favorite quotes or life lessons.
7. Make potpourri bags from leftover fabric, clothes, buttons, herbs, spices, scents, flowers, and items from your home. I did this with some of Ronnie’s things and shared them with her best friends and her sister.
8. Compile a recipe book of all your favorite foods and recipes from your lifetime. You can include photos of the prepared dishes, or photos from gatherings where the food was served, or write about where the recipes came from and how they are part of your life’s traditions and celebrations.
Last week I had a MAID client, a hilarious and fun-loving man with an extensive whiskey collection. Not one for small talk, he went right to the important questions with every person he met: “What is your favorite ice cream? And what is your favorite drink?” He had planned a surprise in advance to thank us for supporting him through his dying day. Not only did he write the nurses and doulas a beautiful letter, but he also gave us gift bags with some of his favorite treats inside.
After his death, he wanted us all to celebrate the day, and his life, with a freshly-muddled ‘Gingertini.” Unfortunately, I promised to never share the recipe, but for me, that delicious Gingertini will always be part of this inspiring client’s legacy of laughter and joy.
Diane Button is the author of several books, including: Dear Death: Finding Meaning in Life, Peace in Death, and Joy in an Ordinary Day, Dear Death: A Workbook and Companion Guide, The Letter Box: A Story of Enduring Love
Diane is a practicing end-of-life doula, a founding partner of the Bay Area End of Life Doula Alliance in Northern California, and a lead instructor at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine EOL Doula Certificate Program. She is a past board member of the National End of Life Doula Alliance and a hospice volunteer. You can find out more about Diane, her books, and her work at DianeButton.com
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