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Not long after being diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer, Randy Pausch reflected on his life in a video. The 46-year-old Carnegie Mellon professor savored the dreams he’d achieved — such as walking in zero gravity — and chuckled at those that were never within reach — playing pro football. He spoke movingly about his love for his wife. And he encouraged his three young children, who would watch the recording when they grew older, to work hard, be thankful and always look for the best in people.
The video, which was filmed in an auditorium packed with students and faculty, drew widespread attention when it was posted to the Internet in 2007 and turned into a best-selling book, The Last Lecture. Pausch died a few months later, but the video endures as a poignant memory for his family and friends. Of course, few people will ever memorialize their lives in such an elaborate way. But as Pausch demonstrated, creating an emotional remembrance in any form can be a powerful experience for those who do it and a lasting touchstone for family members throughout their own lives.
This is commonly done through what’s known as an ethical will. Despite the formality of the term, an ethical will is simply a personal letter or video for loved ones. Sometimes referred to as last letters or legacy letters, ethical wills are not legal documents, nor are they legally binding. They have no standard format, although it’s common to profess love, impart life lessons or underscore ethical values. Some people reveal innermost feelings that they’re uncomfortable expressing in person. As Pausch did, parents often recount snippets of their lives to give future generations insight into who they were as people and what forces shaped them.
Ethical wills date back several centuries and have long been used in the Jewish faith. They’ve historically been written documents, as brief as a paragraph or as long as 10 or 20 pages. Recently, videos, electronic slide shows and other forms of digital communication have also become popular, partly because they allow people to be seen and heard. Whatever format is used, the key is to speak from the heart.
“These are essentially love letters,” says Susan Turnbull, head of Massachusetts-based Personal Legacy Advisors, which offers products and services for people creating ethical wills. “They’re intended for whoever reads them to stand in the shoes of the author and understand them from the inside out.”
Although last letters are typically associated with the end of life, it’s best to create them many years before that. Beyond their emotional impact on others, the letters can serve as guideposts to help the writers identify their own goals in life. At their most honest, ethical wills are a reality check for people to assess whether they’re following their dreams and living up to their ideals.
“It’s incredibly valuable to the writer, even if no one reads it,” Turnbull believes. “It’s an exercise in taking stock.”
The exercise is critical because it’s common for people nearing the end of their lives to feel deep regret, says Dr. VJ Periyakoil, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine who has cared for many dying patients. This regret comes in many forms: disappointment at lives not fully lived; remorse over strained relationships; or guilt at the failure to convey love to spouses or children. Crafting a last letter, Periyakoil says, prevents an end-of-life epiphany that can strike when it’s too late to do anything about it.
“I teach undergraduates, and I have my 18-year-olds writing these letters,” she says.
Many people choose to share ethical wills with loved ones while they’re alive to spur conversations about sensitive issues and reveal aspects of their lives, says April Bell, founder of Tree of Life Legacies, a California-based company that creates videos for clients.
“For some reason, we don’t tell all of our family story or all of our life stories to our kids,” observes Bell. “The kids or the spouse will say, ‘I never knew that about you.’ This creates deeper connections in relationships.”
In some cases, Bell says, parents offer advice that doesn’t immediately resonate with their children but might in the future. “There’s a disconnect between when the elder generation is ready to share and when the younger generation is ready to hear it,” she notes.
Beyond the emotional impact, ethical wills serve practical purposes, partly by easing tensions that can spark family arguments over money. Parents have the opportunity to explain the reasoning behind the strictly financial elements of their estate plans and elaborate on why they apportioned assets as they did.
Some parents tell stories of how they earned the money they’re passing on, such as the hardships and turning points they encountered. The goal is to prevent children from developing a sense of entitlement and inspire them in later years when they run into personal or professional roadblocks of their own.
Though there are no formal rules on how to write an ethical will, make sure yours is upbeat and loving, Turnbull says. Resist the urge to be manipulative or judgmental. And avoid the temptation to procrastinate.
“Don’t put it off until later and later,” Turnbull advises. “It feels really good to do it.”
The above article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Quarterly Insights magazine.