“Strange isn’t it George? Each man’s life touches so many other lives.
When he isn’t around he leaves such an awful hole, doesn’t he.”
– Clarence the Angel, It’s a Wonderful Life
Note: I wrote this back in 2008 but never posted it on my blog. I read it today and thought maybe I should!
Have you ever stopped to wonder what gift your family or friends would most value about you long after you are gone? Having recently experienced one of life’s inevitable events, the legacy we leave behind has been sharply brought into focus.
The 17th of July 2008 is a date I will never forget. The phone rang. It was my sister. I knew from her tone of voice that it wasn’t good news. The next two words she uttered will be etched on my mind forever. “Dad’s died.” They’re just two words, but packed with so much emotion.
Dad had been quite ill with a horrible lung disease called emphysema, which not only makes it hard to breathe but also damages the lungs irreversibly. He had gone into hospital for his routine yearly check up, or MOT as he liked to call it.
Over the years his health had gradually been deteriorating but there was no reason to believe he would not be coming back home from hospital. Late that afternoon he suffered a massive heart attack and died. Although we all knew the severity of his illness, the suddenness of losing him was still a shock.
Writing his eulogy
Being the eldest son I was called upon to write Dad’s eulogy. This, I knew, brought with it a great honor but also a great responsibility. It was an opportunity to record and celebrate Dad’s life and provide a tremendous final gift to our grieving family.
As I sat down to capture my thoughts I began to recall all the special times and fond memories we shared as a family and the impact he had had on my life. It wasn’t long before I had a couple of pages full of special times. I have to say, organising my thoughts and writing my Dad’s eulogy was the toughest writing assignment I’ve ever had.
Strong memories evoke strong emotions, which makes writing all the more difficult. After a whole day of working on it I felt I had something that would pay my last respects in the manner that would put a smile on his face.
The enormity of delivering it
Having been to funerals before I knew there was always a great sense of support and empathy for the eulogy giver. But, I was under no illusion. This was going to be the most difficult eight-minute speech I’d ever given and it was going to require courage and composure to deliver it.
A couple of times I was overcome with emotion but I knew that what I said was more important than how I said it. I’m sure I did him proud. Death may have ended his life but it has not ended our relationship. That bond stays with me forever.
What stuck with me about this whole exercise, was wondering if what Dad considered important whilst he was alive was actually what I wrote in his eulogy? I wondered if Dad knew the legacy he had left us. You see, his eulogy was filled with the little things he did that were, on reflection, big things to me. It’s not possible for everyone to leave a financial legacy, but everybody can, and does, transmit some of the richness of life.
The word “legacy” focuses our attention on the bigger picture and purpose of our lives. It’s important to have goals in our careers and finances but often we tend to polish a couple of facets of our life like diamonds, while allowing other facets to become neglected and tainted. This imbalance inevitably slows down our growth and frequently results in all sorts of health problems.
The legacy we are going to leave is something we often don’t give much thought to, especially in the hustle and bustle of daily life. There is hardly time to slow our thoughts down and be still long enough before the hard reality of living in these economic times hits us and we are off and running at warp speed again. So many of us are busily marking tasks off our “To Do” list but how many of us are purposely creating our “To Be” list?
Living your legacy involves leaving your individual, authentic thumbprint on your world and the lives of others. What’s been revealed to me, first hand, is that what begins with you does not end with you. Every seed we sow has the possibility to grow for generations to come and even surpass our lifetime. You can send a powerful message into the future by choosing to live your best life right now.
Julia Butterfly, the American environmentalist, wrote, “The question is not ‘Can you make a difference?’ You already do make a difference. It’s just a matter of what kind of difference you want to make, during your time on this planet.”
So here is a powerful four step exercise to help you get some clarity around the legacy you want to leave.
Step 1. Start by imagining you are at your own funeral. Picture the scene as clearly as you can. As you take your seat from a high vantage point, you see a tranquil setting with soft music playing in the background and the wonderful fragrance of fresh cut flowers filling the air. Gathered around your casket are faces of many people you know.
Step 2. Picture four specific people who want to honor you and express their gratitude for knowing you through a speech. Imagine one from your family, one from your friends, one from your community and one from your work, all standing and sharing their experience of knowing you.
Step 3. Listen to what each one says about you. Start with the family member. Listen to the impact you had on their life. Now move onto one of your dear friends. What do they have to say about you? Next, someone from your community gets up and speaks. What words do they use to describe your character? And lastly, someone you’ve worked with. What value did you bring to their life?
Step 4. Once you’ve finished picturing the scene, write down the thoughts, feelings and words that rise to the surface. This will help you identify your core values, beliefs and principles.
Spend some quality time putting these ideas into a short sentence or two so that you can read it anytime and anywhere to stay on task towards being the best possible you.
It will help you remember what matters, most especially when your core values are out of alignment with how you are behaving or living.
In summary, the only thing you take with you when you are gone is what you leave behind. Question is: What will you leave behind?
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