Legacy letters to pass on to loved ones

(Image courtesy of Metro Creative)

MARQUETTE — A survey by Oxford University found that 81% of U.S. respondents want their heirs to inherit their personal values.

How do your heirs know what your personal values are? That’s where a legacy letter comes in.

“I truly believe that it (legacy letter) provides an inheritance and a legacy more valuable than money,” former corporate attorney, and Executive Director for two non-profits that advocated on behalf of older adults Amy Paul said. Paul was the speaker for the online presentation Learn About Legacy Letters, hosted by the American Association of Retired Persons on April 27.

A legacy letter is a letter written as an expression of a person’s life wisdom, values, and experiences. It is intended to be a guide and source of comfort for the recipient. Sometimes legacy letters are called an ethical will, however it is not a legal document.

Legacy letters come from an ancient tradition that has existed for hundreds of years in western societies. The tradition was lost in the 1800s, only to be reinstated by doctors and health professionals working with older people in the mid-1900s.

Paul noted that there are four types of legacies: land and real estate, personal property, genetic, and ethical/moral/philosophical. Land, real estate, and personal property usually all get transferred in a legal deed or will; genetics are inherited from parents; so how are the ethical, moral, and philosophical legacies passed down? These can be transferred through role models of parenting, religion, books, poems, and/or legacy letters.

“That’s the life stuff, that’s the stuff that helps us figure out how to make our life as good as it can be,” Paul said.

So, how is a legacy letter written? According to Paul, it is a writing process that is a process. You can take as much time as you need to write it. This might mean days, weeks, or months. Indentifity who the recipient of the letter will be to give you a better idea about what you’d like to write about. You can make one letter for multiple people, or you can make different letters for different people.

“There’s no right or wrong way, you do what’s best for you, your family, and your situation,” Paul said.

You can look at old photos to jog your memory of past experiences if desired. Letters can be as long or as short as you want them to be.

“It’s not how long it is that matters, it’s the content of it that matters,” Paul stated.

You can write about whatever you want to write about, and it doesn’t have to be about all good experiences. Lessons can always be passed on through bad experiences. Some things you could write about include biographical information, values, family sayings, stories, advice, experiences, explanations, apologies, love and future hopes. You could include things like photos or family recipes to go along with your letter.

“Nothing in the letter has to be grand or dramatic. Ordinary, everyday stories can teach so much value and wisdom. You shouldn’t shy away from including them in your letter just because you think they’re not grand enough,” Paul said.

Some of Paul’s tips for writing include being honest, focusing on the future, and writing with love and rather than negativity.

Letters can be audio or visual. Although, Paul pointed out that handwritten letters are probably best, as a letter will exist without needing technology to hear or view it. Furthermore, handwritten letters feel more personal, as it is comforting for those reading it to see the handwriting of the author. If your handwriting is hard to read, it may be best to type it.

Most people give their letter as part of their estate papers, but you can give it whenever you want. You can also make multiple letters, and give them out throughout the years on milestones such as birthdays or graduations.

The benefits for the author of the legacy letter, Paul listed, include: it can give forgiveness, or get forgiveness to get closure on issues; the author can learn about their self, or their family; the author gains a sense of control over their life; it gives an opportunity to explain the author’s reasoning and actions; and it encourages values of importance.

The benefits the recipient of the letter include: gaining inspiration and guidance for difficult challenges; keeping the memory of the author strong; learning important life values; getting a sense of identity and roots; and help to look forward to the future.

“Our life experience gives each of us wisdom that can’t be purchased, but that can be shared and passed on,” Paul said.

For those looking to write but maybe need a bit of a writing warm up, or ideas on what to write about, the Letters From Home program is the perfect activity to participate in.

Letters From Home a is a project that is part of the City of Marquette’s Senior Center’s Senior Theatre Experience program.

When COVID hit, Program Director Moire Embley came up with Letters From Home as a way to keep creative expression going, according to Arts and Senior Services Coordinator Tristan Luoma.

Through the program, writing prompts are sent out in the mail once a month. Participants then have a couple weeks to either write or type out a 250-500 word letter responding to the prompt and mail it in. A return envelope with postage is included with the prompt, making the program entirely free for any resident in Chocolay, Marquette, and Powell Townships wishing to participate.

“Having programs like this to really invite people to be open and share their stories is really impactful,” Luoma said.

Once the letter is sent in, there are opportunities for follow up calls and meetings to talk about how to develop the stories further. Embley even started a podcast where stories can be shared if a participant would like.

“It’s just a great way to get people thinking about these bigger questions, and topics of life, and topics of self expression, and then having some tangible thing come out of it. Weather that’s just being able to get those onto paper and having records for the future to share with loved ones, or to make it into a podcast to make it a litte more formalized,” Luoma said.

For those interested in the Letters From Home project, contact Luoma at 906-225-8655.


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