Friday, April 28, 2006

Seven Questions to Reflect On

Among the many possible questions you may want to use to start creating your ethical will are:

1. Who influenced you most in your life and what did you learn from them that affected the way you've lived?

2. Describe the most important experiences of your life. What did they teach you?

3. What was the happiest time of your life? The saddest time?

4. What spiritual beliefs have guided and sustained you?

5. Describe the family stories you'd like people to remember. What meaning do they have for you?

6. What are you most proud of? Any regrets?

7. What do you wish you had learned earlier in life?

Pondering these questions could take days or months. But the most important decision is to get started with just one. Add "ethical will" time to your calendar (at least 2 hours to start). Then find a comfortable place to write. I prefer my comfy forest green recliner at home (alone) and some classical music in the background. I've also done some writing in a busy coffee shop with lots of distractions in the background. Whatever works for you!

I like writing longhand with my favorite pen in a "college-ruled 1 subject" notebook. Somehow, writing about personal experiences works best for me when my hand is moving (and not just my fingertips "tap-tapping" on my laptop). I think it was Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones who first clued me in to the idea of the heart-mind-body connection in the writing process. Thank you, Natalie, wherever you are!

So, if you're ready and willing, start with the one question that appeals to you most. Close your eyes and breathe, three long slow deep breaths. Then breathe normally for awhile as you consider the question. Open your eyes and write without stopping for as long as it takes to get what you want to say down on paper (or into your computer). Forget about editing for now. Just write. Enjoy the process. And be surprised by your memories, life learnings, and wisdom!
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"Pickles" Comics on Ethical Wills (April 28)

Had a good chuckle this morning when I read "Pickles" and saw that Earl was getting started on his own Ethical Will. As a Minnesota "native", I now know for sure that Earl grew up in my old neighborhood.

Take a peek at: The Wisdom of "Pickles"
"Pickles" Comics on Ethical Wills (April 28)SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Getting Started on Your Ethical Will

There seem to be different stages of "readiness" for creating an ethical will. For me, like I've done with many new things I've considered doing in my life, I started by educating myself through reading about ethical wills -- in magazine articles, Barry Baines book on the subject, and on related websites (see Links). With what I learned, I got to a point of willingness (the "tipping point") that got me to begin writing down questions I wanted to reflect on to create content for my ethical will as well as think through my intentions for completing such a document.

As a long-time (off-and-on) journal writer for much of my life, I felt very comfortable about doing the writing but struggled with scheduling time to do it. If there would have been a class or writing group in town working on ethical wills at the time, I would have joined it to "kick-start" the process. (NOTE: Now, a year later, I'm facilitating such classes to help others get started on their own ethical wills).

Whether you join a class to get started or begin on your own, there are (at least) three approaches to use: 1) start with a blank page (usually only for people who've done lots of "open-ended" journal or diary writing); 2) begin with specific questions or "reflections" exercises and an outline (the approach I prefer); 3) start with a list of statements (already written by someone else) for you to choose from and an outline (easiest and quickest, but least satisfying in my experience). Dr. Baines book and software on his website are the only source I know of for implementig approach #3.

One of the most intriguing ways of getting started that I heard from a man at one of my talks was his plan to start with his family heirlooms. He had several pieces of antique furniture which had been passed down to him by earlier generations of his family and he was the only person left who knew the "story" of each piece. He decided to write about the people he received the furniture from, what he knew about when the antique came into the family, and the meaning each piece had for him. Then he planned to place a copy of what he had written about each antique on the back so his heirs would know its family story as it was passed from generation to generation. What a wonderful way to honor past generations of your family and convey your own spirit to future generations!

Whichever approach you use, I think it's most important to write "from your heart", speaking in your own unique voice. Write like you talk (or tape record what you have to say and then transcribe your words). Be sure to use words that "do no harm". An ethical will is not the place to guilt-trip or attempt to change the "evil ways" of anyone in your family. It helps to approach the writing as your "love letter" to future generations -- a heartfelt blessing for the people you leave behind when you die and for their children and grandchildren. Remember that you are creating a personal legacy of your lifetime.
Getting Started on Your Ethical WillSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Most People Die With Their Music Still Inside Them

Last week at a local bookstore, I noticed a book titled And Never Stop Dancing by Gordon Livingston, M.D. It's subtitle is "Thirty More True Things You Need to Know Now". I bought the book and have enjoyed my bedtime reading of the wisdom of Dr. Livingston, a psychiatrist and writer who also wrote Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart (which I look forward to reading soon).

Among Dr. Livingston's 30 "true things" about life are explorations of: We are defined by what we fear. It is a sense of meaning that nourishes the soul. Forgiveness is a gift we give ourselves. The last two pages of his last chapter -- Most people die with their music still inside them -- offers the following insightful comments about ethical wills:

"Some people have provided a variation on this exercise (writing one's own obituary) by use of what has become known as "ethical wills". Unlike a conventional will that is used to distribute money and property, an ethical will is a statement of values that one imagines may be of interest or guidance to those who survive us. Constructing such a testimonial seems like a good idea, whether in contemplation of imminent death or a sort of midlife inventory of experience and beliefs that one would like to pass on to one's survivors.

The problem with the statements that I have read is that they tend to contain a lot of advice. This is, I suppose yet another example of the usual dialogue between the generations in which those who are older feel a need to tell those who are younger what to do. How much better received we would be if we simply told our stories and left the moral for the listeners to divine. In writers' workshops the operative instruction is "show, don't tell." Thus implies that we learn best about values by seeing how other people have expressed what they believed by their actions and not being told to "follow your passion," or "do unto others ...," or "live an honest life". Most of us know what we should do; we just need models of how those who have gone before us have reified their beliefs.

It's not surprising that when we contemplate our mortality we tend to feel a little desperate about being remembered. "He not busy being born is busying dying." Bob Dylan said. His music will not be buried with him."

Well said, Dr. Livingston. I better take another look at my "in-process" ethical will to see how I've been doing regarding your "show, don't tell" instruction.
Most People Die With Their Music Still Inside ThemSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Friday, April 21, 2006

Reflections Exercise - Questions to Consider

As promised yesterday, here is the reflections exercise I use in my introductory talk on ethical wills. I'll add some commentary about typical responses following the exercise.


Take a few moments to relax and quiet your mind. Breathe three, long slow deep breaths. Then read the first question below, close your eyes and focus on your heart while breathing normally. Listen for your inner voice and hear the answer to the question from your heart. When you're ready, open your eyes and write down the words you received from your heart. Then, repeat this process for the second question.

1. Who were the most influential people in your life? What did you learn from them that affected the way you've lived?

2. How has life blessed you -- given you special gifts? What have these gifts meant to you as you've lived your life?


Often people have been surprised by how they feel when they consciously breathe with a focus on their heart -- and by how clearly their inner voice speaks to them. Then, as they begin writing, so much flows forth that the pen seems to be writing by itself! Memories are recalled, learnings crystalize, wisdom emerges.

In answering the first question, most people in my talks have considered one or both parents to be the most influential people in the lives, but teachers, close relatives, friends, mentors, and authors are close behind. Quite often, the issue of "negative" influences -- usually one parent or another person in an early period on someone's life -- come to the surface. Surprising to some is the fact that their "negative" experiences have ultimately led to important learnings that transformed into blessings for the way they've chosen to live their life. In my own experience, I know that my difficult relationship with my father for most of our lives has taught me forgiveness in a deeper way I than I probably could ever have "gotten it". Now, I can also see the connection between how I learned to "show up and be present" for others and the way my dad was so "negatively" distant and unavailable to me in my life.

Most people easily "connect the dots" between the influencial people in their lives and their most important life learnings -- affecting their values, beliefs, vocational choices, relationships -- all of these (and more) have influenced the way they've lived as a result of experiences with key people in their childhood, youth, and later life.

The second question regarding the special gifts that life has given a person has proven more powerful and revealing than I ever imagined. Generally, people who've done this exercise during my ethical will talk have clearly recognized the gifts -- the blessings -- that life has graced them with. Most know what an incredible difference these special gifts have made in their life and feel a deep sense of gratitude for life's blessings. But many have been surprised when they've recognized the connection between the gifts they have been given (by their Creator, God, or Life itself) and their "purpose" or "mission" in life.

I've found in my own life and in the lives of people I've counseled over the past 20+ years that knowing your "special gifts" reveals -- and opens -- the doorway to living your life "on purpose". If you ever have any doubts about what you need to be "doing" (and "being") in your life, start using (and giving!) the gifts that life has given you. Bless others with the blessings you have received. When you do, you'll feel absolutely certain about "why I am here" on this Earth -- at this time, in this place, and for however many days you have left to live.
Reflections Exercise - Questions to ConsiderSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Introductory Talk on Ethical Wills

This morning I did a "Create A Legacy of Your Lifetime" talk at our senior center in Eugene. Seven people showed up for the 1-1/2 hour introduction to ethical wills -- five women and two men (one by himself, the other with his wife). Amazingly, a 98 year old woman came with her daughter (she wants to record the family stories that only "Mom" knows).

In my introduction, I share what I've learned about ethical wills and why I decided to begin speaking about my experience -- then talk about what they are, why to do one for yourself, when to begin (sooner the better!), and various approaches people use in writing an ethical will. Then I ask the participants to join me in a "reflection exercise" so they can get an idea of what types of questions are helpful in generating content for their ethical will. (I will share that exercise in a future post -- since the document file isn't on my laptop).

After we individually write our responses to the reflection questions, I ask people to share what they wrote with one other person in the group. The room quickly begins "buzzing" with conversation -- full of energized sharing about important experiences in people's lives. Whenever I do this exercise, it feels like the conversations could go on for hours -- but, unfortunately, I have to bring the discussions to the close to finish at our promised time.

This morning, with seven participants, I had the honor of being paired with the 98 year old woman for our reflections sharing. I wish I would have had a tape recorder to capture all that I heard about her life in just 10 minutes -- about growing up on a small farm in eastern Tennessee (where she learned thriftyness and tea-totaling from her parents), about being sent off to live with relatives in a town 15 miles from home so she could go to high school (her sister stayed at home), about saving money until she had $300 that allowed her to begin going to college (in the late 1920's), about working at various jobs for 25 and 50 cents an hour to stay in college and graduate in 1932, then going one to graduate school in Botany -- and working 5 long years toward her doctorate (a "mistake" to stay so long, she said, because her male professor blocked her from getting the PhD she had worked so hard for). She left school and went on to qualify and work in civil service jobs for 40 years. I asked her how long she was married. "Over 60 years", she said with tears welling up in her eyes " a Botantist!" There was lots more to say ... and lots more I would have loved to ask her about her life ... but we had to move on. What a blessing those few minutes of one-to-one time with her were for me!

I fervently hope the life story, the life lessons, and wisdom of this incredible woman get down on paper or tape recorded for sharing with current and future generations of women (and men who never knew how badly women of her generation were treated by the patriarchal "fathers" and corporate systems of her day ... and continuing into her daughter's generation ... and still alive today in many parts of our country and the world).

My talk concludes with a discussion of when to share an ethical will with family and friends (while still alive, I wholeheartedly recommend!), with some ideas on how to do it (special celebrations, important anniversaries or birthdays), and some ways to preserve ethical will documents so they'll last for generations. I ask for questions and feedback from participants (which sparks enjoyable converation and gives me excellent input for improving the introductory session)-- then share ideas for "what next?" (join an ethical will writing group, do one by yourself with "start-up" reflection questions from my handouts and from ethical will books, or get individual help from me or a friend who shares your interest).

Before people leave, I always encourage them to do an ethical will for themselves most of all. It's a worthwhile experience to take time to reflect on your life and "harvest" your life learnings -- no matter what your age. Then share your ethical will with family and friends when the time is right for you. Keep your values, stories, and wisdom alive for future generations!
Introductory Talk on Ethical WillsSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Learning About Ethical Wills

I first read about ethical wills in a magazine article titled "Gift of a Lifetime". The writer referred to a book -- Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper by Barry Baines, M. D. -- which I bought and read with interest. It offers an excellent overview on ethical wills, recommended formats and questions to help you get started, and provides several samples of ethical wills people have written.

I also took a look at Dr. Baines website,, and decided to contact him about a program he offers for workshop leaders. Since I had facilitated many workshops and support groups over the past 20 years, I decided to order the Ethical Wills Workshop Leader's Guide offered on the website with the idea that I might begin "teaching what I need to learn" sometime in the future.

After receiving and reviewing the workshop leader's guide, I decided to first create and offer a short talk about ethical wills at our local senior centers and OASIS Adult Activity Center. Since I had prevously done several community talks in my previous job as community relations coordinator for an in-home care provider, I was able to schedule and present three 1-1 1/2 hour talks over a period of 6 months period in Eugene-Springfield. The talks were well-received by interested groups ranging from 8 - 22 people, most of whom were women 60+ in age -- with some husbands along with their wives and a rare few other elderly men by themselves.

Creating and presenting the ethical will introductory talk -- which I called "Your Life's Legacy: Blessing Future Generations" -- was (and still is) an enjoyable experience for me. In future blog posts, I will share highlights of the talk and the experiential "reflection exercises" I use to help people begin the process of creating their own ethical will.
Learning About Ethical WillsSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Hospice Experience & Ethical Wills

As a hospice volunteer, I've had the privilege of sitting by the bedside of people who are living their dying. With every person I've met at the last stage of their lives, I've learned many lessons about living and, especially, about the grace in dying. As I look back at my hospice experiences, I know that I was quietly drawn to the subject of ethical wills as a result of my time with one man.

I was asked by a family to tape record stories about the life of an elderly man for his children and grandchildren to listen to after his death. I recall driving to the rural home of his daughter where he lived and, at her request, let myself in the house and found the tape recorder she had left for me to use. I went into the bedroom and sat down next to the bed and introduced myself to the gentleman -- telling him that his daughter had asked me to record some stories about his life. "Oh, no, I don't want to do that. I don't like the sound of my voice anymore" he said. His voice did seem strained to me but he was clear and understandable. I sat with him in silence for awhile, wondering if he was ever going to start talking again. I looked around the room for something to ask him about ... then noticed a big tattoo on his arm ... and asked "where did you get that great tattoo?" He started telling me the story of the tattoo ... which lead to a story about his work in Africa ... which lead to another story about his life ... and, finally, an hour or so later, he said it was time for him to rest. I thanked him and said I'd be back next week to see him again. I left the tape full of stories next to the recorder for his daughter and let myself out of the house.

The next week when I returned, I was surprised to see the man sitting up in his bed with a sense of readiness to get more of his stories recorded. As soon as I got the recorder and microphone ready to go, he immediately started telling a story which I sensed he had been waiting to have recorded. I was blessed with another great hour of listening to his life stories and hoped that his loved ones would enjoy hearing him tell them as much as I did. Once again, he knew when it was time to stop. I thanked him once again and said I'd see him the following week. I left another tape full of new (old) stories for his daughter and drove home wondering what new life adventures he'd tell me about next week.

The next week's storytelling never happened. I received a call two days before I was to see the man again and was told he had died the night before. Such is the reality of being a hospice volunteer. You learn to cherish the moments, knowing that each contact you have with a person may be the last. Yes, I knew he was going to die and yes, I would have loved to hear even more stories about his interesting life. Mostly, I was happy that I had been invited into his life to help bring those two tapes of his stories into existence for his loved ones to hear again ... and again ... and pass along to the next generation of his family.

The value and importance of life stories and life lessons of family members really touched my heart in the few hours I spent with this dying man. Such stories from individual lives and what a person learned on their life journey can be an integral part of an ethical will.
Hospice Experience & Ethical WillsSocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Friday, April 07, 2006

What is an Ethical Will?

When I first heard about "ethical wills" a couple of years ago, I was immediately attracted to the idea of creating one of my own to share with my children, life partner, and friends. This blog covers my journey of writing an ethical will and invites others to discuss their ethical will experiences.

An ethical will offers a way to convey what is most important in your life -- your values, beliefs, stories, life lessons, wisdom, hopes, dreams, and blessings -- to the most important people in your life. Most ethical wills are in the form of a written document but others are audio or videotaped for listening and viewing. They are intended to be shared with your loved ones and passed along from generation to generation of your family.

Ethical wills are not legal documents but they can provide a personal context for completing your "last will and testament" (legal will) and your "living will" (advance directive for health care). They can also be a helpful guide for estate planning.
What is an Ethical Will?SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend