As we approach the end of our lives, many of us are filled with regret about the past and anxiety about what lies ahead. Likewise, as we grieve the losses that we experience, we often lack the opportunity to find closure or peace with the way life has ended. Death, dying and grieving can be a deeply disempowering time. Because we understand so little about the dying process and even the experience of death itself, it can be difficult to reclaim a sense of empowerment and autonomy. This is the space that a legacy project best fills.
A legacy project is a tangible and culminating gift to honor the life that is ending or has ended. Legacy projects can vary in scope and magnitude and can be very small but deeply meaningful or be grandiose celebrations of life. Each unique life and each individual journey can be honored by the creation of a legacy project.
Here are some examples of legacy projects: A client of mine had been estranged from his child for many years. After lengthy conversations about his regrets and wishes for this adult child, he was able to craft a series of beautiful letters expressing all the things he’d left unsaid for her to receive upon his death. These letters became a scrapbook of sorts, a record of his memories and a re-writing of their history in his wishes for what he could have done better. Although the letters will not heal all wounds, he has described feeling less anxious about his transition into hospice care because he feels as if he has resolved “a bit of unfinished business”.
Video and audio recordings are a popular choice and an easy legacy project that can be done quickly. Some people choose to record their final wishes to their loved ones to be played at their memorial services, others want to leave specific messages for their loved ones. A widely used idea is making videos for special days; for example, a mother may wish to leave a video for her daughter to view on her wedding day or a grandfather may wish to read a favorite bedtime story to his grandchild.
Scrapbooks and travel journals are one of the most common legacy projects that I’m asked to assist with. Sometimes the book is created to honor a specific joy (travel or cooking), a person or relationship (photo book of mother and son through the years) or as a place to compile all the odds and ends a person has collected over the course of their life. These books are meaningful and sacred to create and also cherished by those who inherit them. They are also often a beloved part of the memorial service if they are displayed for the family and friends to appreciate.
A client that I am working with currently has chosen to create a life scroll. This beautiful papyrus scroll is a timeline of her life, adorned with her biographical info (marriage date, the birth of her children, etc) but also her most favorite memories, trips, accomplishments, and successes. This scroll will be displayed at her memorial service and draped over her coffin. The scroll gains complexity over time as well, as the dying moves closer toward death, memories surface that can be added to the scroll. It’s already a beautiful gift that she hopes to leave her family.
Crafts or hobbies also lend a natural welcome to the creation of a legacy project. Not only is it a prized gift to leave your loved ones, but it is also helpful to have a project to consistently work on. Although every end of life experience is different, for many people there is ample time to keep your hands and mind busy on something meaningful and productive. Examples of this may be: journaling, knitting, quilting, poetry writing, painting, writing dedications is beloved books, etc.
So how exactly does a death doula facilitate the creation of a legacy project? In the time that a death doula spends at the bedside, they are often directing the conversation toward the topics of meaning, joy, love and purpose. We ask questions more contemplative than those usually conducted in hospice and end-of-life settings. Medical professionals spend their time addressing the body and its needs. The death doula offers holistic care of the whole person; the physical body, but equally as important to the death doula are the emotional, the spiritual, and the contemplative components. The doula is hoping to form a sense of the meaning in the life of the person we are serving.
This conversation has a dual purpose. On the one hand, we hope to reframe some of the more difficult memories and relationships to find a more peaceful perspective as the person journeys into the dying process. On the other hand, we hope to paint a clear picture of the whole person we are serving, tying the threads of their lives together into a comprehensive memorial. This memorial is a legacy project.
Legacy projects can also be a useful tool in the grieving process. When an unexpected loss occurs, the living are suddenly faced with finding ways to draw the relationship to a close, on their own. One beautiful way to aid in this process is to create a legacy project for the person who has died, to honor the relationship as it was. In a sense, this is a way to say all of the things we never had a chance to say. For a mother grieving the loss of a pregnancy or infant, writing a letter of goodbye is an example of a legacy project. Rituals can also aid in this grief work. For example, remembering the person you loved to have coffee with by sitting in their favorite spot, drinking their preferred coffee, and thinking of the times you shared can be a soothing ritual to help the grieving. Starting a group to help others on similar journeys is another example of creating a legacy from a loss, for example, Sadija A. Smiley’s creation of SAILS (Stillborn And Infant Loss Support) after the loss of her stillborn daughter, Ivyanna.
As a society, we are hesitant to talk about the difficult parts of life’s cycle. We shy away from conversations about life’s end, we divorce ourselves from our grief and we often even separate our aging elders. But what is the cost of this approach toward end-of-life? Do we know how to honor the life we have lived as we begin to surrender into the final phase of letting go? Do we know how to look back on our lives with a sense of accomplishment and celebration? Do we know how to say goodbye? Do we know how to grieve in a healthy way? Legacy projects offer comfort to both the dying person who creates the project and to the grieving person who inherits the project. Legacy projects also offer a source of meaning and acknowledgment of the pain of loss in their creation by the grieving. We can honor the lives that we’ve lived, we can honor the lives that we’ve lost and we can honor the essential process of living, dying, grieving that is universal to all humans. Legacy projects are one tool in this necessary and sacred work.