Close your eyes and think about a beloved ancestor of yours that has passed away.
Pretend that you are standing before them, able to speak and communicate with them just as you would if they were still alive.
Now, think about all the questions you would ask them if you could.
What were their lives really like? What were the values they held dear? What do they regret? Whom do they seek forgiveness from, and whom do they wish they had forgiven while they were still alive?
For many of us, this is as close as we will ever get to being able to discern the wishes and whims of our predecessors.
That is of course, unless your deceased relative has left behind a document known as an ethical will.
What makes a will "ethical?"
Also called a legacy letter, or spiritual letter, an ethical will has very little to do with its heavily-regulated cousin—the Last Will and Testament.
According to Barry Baines, M.D., a hospice physician and author of, "Ethical Wills: Putting Your Values on Paper," an ethical will, in its simplest form, is, "a way to record and pass on your values, beliefs, faith, life lessons, love and forgiveness."
Even though the concept of an ethical will has been around for over 3,500 years, few people are aware what one is, or how it differs from a traditional will.
There are no rigid rules that govern the construction of an ethical will. You don't have to go to a lawyer to have one written up. There are no forms to fill out, and it doesn't have to cost you anything beyond the sheet of paper it's on and the pen you use to write it with.
An ethical will can include everything from an account of the family's history, an important life lesson the person has learned, a list of secret family recipes, a person's hopes and dreams for their descendants, etc.
There is no hard and fast set of rules governing what must be contained in a person's ethical will, or even when it should be written.
A common time to write an ethical will is when a person is nearing the end of their life. But, Baines says that people also write ethical wills at key turning points throughout their lives: when they get married, have kids, or become empty nesters.
The benefits of chronicling a life's journey
Baines recounts the story of how he became interested in the topic of ethical wills.
During a hospice team meeting, he was told about a man dying from pancreatic cancer. The man was only in his late 40's and was consumed with the fear that he would soon be forgotten once he died. He was, as Haines puts it, "afraid of losing his transcendence," his ability to impact the lives of his progeny.
Upon hearing this man's story, Baines and a team of hospice workers and spiritual counselors got together and came up with a list of questions to ask the man about his life and his values—essentially creating the outline for an ethical will. Once the man was done penning his answers, the immense burden of his spiritual suffering was lifted.
According to Baines, this is the most profound benefit that people—particularly those who are suffering from a terminal illness—receive from writing an ethical will. Though he also says that, no matter what stage of life someone choses to put their goals and beliefs on paper, they often find a profound sense of peace once they are done.
Even the caregiver, whose life is not coming to an end, may find serenity and even a sense of accomplishment when they take the time to sit down and think about the lessons and they have learned and the values they have upheld during their caregiving journey.
Caregivers and seniors can also benefit from working on their ethical wills together. Common themes are likely to come up and bonding can occur over shared experiences and wisdom.
Turning a blank sheet into something meaningful
A blank sheet of paper can be a daunting obstacle for most people, so Baines suggests that caregivers and their elderly loved ones start with simple ideas:
- Do you have a particular success you had that you want to share with your descendants?
- How about a failure and its corresponding lesson?
- What's one of your biggest regrets in life?
- What traditional or value do you most want to see continue in your family?
Baines also feels that there is extreme value in joining a group of people writing ethical wills. He says that people's energy level increases when they get together to share ideas and inspiration.
Guided exercises may also help jumpstart a caregiver's creativity. Baines has written several books that include a variety of exercises to help people overcome writer's block.
One such exercise, highlighted by the hypothetical at the beginning of this article, is called, "linking the generations." This drill involves thinking about the questions you would want to ask your deceased ancestors and then providing your answers to those questions for future generations.
Don't wait until tomorrow
Do you know the names of all eight of your great-grandparents?
If you can't cite them off the top of your head, don't feel too bad. According to Baines, not many people taking part in ethical will writing workshops can name even four of their great-grandparents, so it's likely that your great grandkids won't know your name either.
But that doesn't mean they won't want to know.
Genealogy, fueled by search engines and software programs that help a person re-construct their family tree, is already one of the most popular hobbies in the United States, according to Haines.
People are fascinated by the past and want to know as much as they can about their ancestors. The problem is that that information can be hard to gather, even in light of today's technology.
For caregivers who want to protect their legacy (and that of their elderly loved ones), Baines says that it's never too early to begin work on an ethical will. He points out that most ethical wills cannot be completed in one sitting, and will require a significant amount of thought in order to be impactful, so caregivers should consider starting as soon as possible.
"It's best not to wait to capture this information," he says, "nobody is promised tomorrow, and you never know if there is going to be enough time."