Of the people I have worked with from all walks of life on the journaling process, there are two groups that particularly fascinate me.
Teenagers are one, because for many of them the internal critic has not risen up to mammoth form as it has in adults, and this allows them to be bold true-tellers and courageous explorers on the page.
Seniors are the other. They have amazing stories that offer such great insight and wisdom. Every time I have had the privilege of hearing their recollections about life, I think of how our society is wasting a vast resource by not tapping into the wealth of their experiences.
I am not talking about instruction on the “how-to’s” of life, as clearly how we “do” many things now is not how things were done in the early to mid 1900s. Rather, we can learn from the timeless qualities they cultivated over a lifetime, like tenacity, honesty, faithfulness and a strong work ethic.
I wrote The Work of Her Hands, a tribute to my maternal grandmother, several years after she died. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I could ask her about aspects of her life – what motivated her, what was it like for her as a mother, a wife, how did she deal with disappointment or pain? Certainly, my relatives were sources of information, but they couldn’t tell me her heart’s truth, and she left no diaries behind for me to consult.
As I have shared in other posts, and in my newest book, Your Journal Companion, writing about things that are meaningful to us is scientifically proven to offer both physical and psychological benefits, whether you are 9 or 90 years old.
Seniors who journal regularly about their thoughts and concerns, as well as recall the things that have been important to them over their lifetime, can partake of these benefits AND offer their loved ones the great gift of leaving their legacy in an “ethical will.”
An ethical will imparts a person’s moral and ethical values in writing. It is not drawn up in fancy language by a lawyer, but written by hand (or typed) by the person him/herself. Its value is in its rich content not because of its good grammar or perfect spelling. The core intention is for loved ones to be able to hear the unique “voice” of their relative and be comforted, encouraged and informed by it.
The techniques and prompts offered in Your Journal Companion can help seniors begin to engage with the writing process, and there are a number of books available that provide specific guidance in writing an ethical will. My favorite is by Carol Franco and Kent Lineback, The Legacy Guide: Capturing The Facts, Memories and Meaning of Your Life.
So, seniors, please begin writing! Here are a few tips to help get you started:
- Make a list of topics you want to write about. (i.e. important life events, greatest challenges, “firsts” – pet, kiss, car, child, etc., best/worst jobs, qualities that you value in others)
- Don’t be afraid to write. What you are doing is not a school assignment and no one is grading you on spelling and grammar. No critics allowed!
- Write the way you speak. In fact, to get you going, you might begin by saying a sentence out loud and then writing it down exactly as you spoke it.
- What you write does not need to have a beginning and an end. Just write what comes to you at the time. You can always add to it later.
- Be honest in your writing. Telling the truth to and about yourself is courageous, but can be therapeutic for you and an important part of leaving an ethical will for others.
- Set aside some quiet time to write. Start with 5 or 10 minutes each day and then increase as it feels right to do so.
- If you have physical restrictions that make writing or typing difficult, try using a Dictaphone (or if you have a smart phone you likely have a Voice Memo app that is easy to use). Then ask a friend or family member to transcribe your stories into writing.
If I can speak for others from my own experience and regrets, there is nothing more valuable than the guidance and wisdom our elders can impart. If I were to have the privilege of having my grandmother’s ethical will in hand today, I would consider myself a very, very rich woman.
Begin writing the gift of your legacy. It is one of the most valuable gifts you will ever give to those you love.