Lyndsay Green is a sociologist and author of The Well-Lived Life: Live with Purpose and Be Remembered, which was published this week.
A few weeks ago, I received the kind of news we dread. My friend of many years found out that he has three to six months left of his life. After visiting his doctor to check out some minor medical complaints, he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive liver cancer. I cried as I thought about the imminent loss of this fine man and the unfairness of having his life ripped away. I was heartbroken imagining the anguish of his extremely close family – a wife of many decades who had been his high-school sweetheart, and two adoring and adored children. I also felt a shiver of fear from the chill of mortality’s breath on my own cheek.
Tragedies such as my friend’s diagnosis challenge our magical thinking that we will be spared an abrupt end. We count on having a good long life that concludes with a perfect and timely death – despite being surrounded by evidence predicting the contrary. We assume we’ll have time to compose a meaning to our lives, time to follow a path closer to our life’s purpose, time to make amends, time to clean up our mess. But, if we’re not careful we may hear the call “time’s up” before we’ve paid attention to the implications of our end.
Let’s put ourselves in my friend’s shoes. What if we were told our life was to abruptly end? Have we been living a life aligned with our values? Would our time on earth have made a difference to anyone or anything? What would we be leaving behind for those we love? What responsibilities would be left dangling? What story would people tell about us after we’re gone? Have we been taking full advantage of this one precious life, both for ourselves and for others? What would be our legacy?
While researching my book on legacy, I’ve been asking people these questions, and I’ve been struck by the sense of despair and resentment expressed by some people. Some of them say they don’t have the resources necessary to leave a legacy and won’t be leaving anything behind. Others say they won’t be making any significant contribution to the world so why would they be remembered? As for taking concrete steps to prepare for the end, more than half of us don’t have a will, and only a third of us have a will that is up to date.
We are misreading the concept of legacy if we assume we have a choice in the matter. We are building our legacy continuously by the way we lead our lives, whether consciously or not. The actions and contributions we make every day are the components that will structure our remembered self. As well, our future persona will be shaped by the attention we pay to the impact of our deaths on those we leave behind and our efforts to fill the gap left by our departure.
We would be wise not to underestimate the importance of the role we play on this Earth. When people talked to me about their departed family members and friends they imbued them with the emotional fibre of those still alive. As their stories were being told, the deceased leapt into our conversations, sometimes radiating kindness and consideration, other times trailing chains of hurt and anger. We are leaving a legacy – like it or not. So, we would be wise to pay attention to what that legacy will look like.
If we think we’re too young to make a difference, we have only to look at Logan Boulet, the 21-year-old Humbolt Broncos hockey player who was one of the 16 people who died in a horrendous bus crash last year. Only five weeks earlier, on his birthday, Mr. Boulet had signed his organ-donor card. Six people’s lives were changed thanks to his decision. Since the publication of his story, about 100,000 Canadians have signed up to become donors, and the number keeps growing. Given that one organ donor can save up to eight lives, Mr. Boulet is leaving a remarkable legacy. And there’s another person in that legacy chain. Mr. Boulet told his father that he had been inspired by a friend who had donated his organs before he died.
When we assume we don’t have the resources to make an impact, we should turn to the story of Peter Verin, who was living on the streets of Victoria in 2017, when he died just short of his 72nd birthday. Mr. Verin collected recyclables in shopping carts, slept where he could find shelter and was always ready to stop for a philosophical discussion. People say he would have been taken aback to find that his life has been memorialized by a granite bench calling him “Our Philosopher King.” After Mr. Verin’s death, members of his broad and diverse social network found out about each other and launched a fundraising effort to create some sort of permanent commemoration. They never imagined they would raise $3,400. They had enough money for the bench, a plaque and some left over to be donated to organizations that help homeless people. His carved tribute reads: “You touched all our hearts. We were blessed to know you.”
And if you’ve decided you don’t need a will because you have nothing of value, remember that court cases have been fought over “nothing.” A lawyer told me how frustrating it was to watch a family feud that eventually went to litigation over a $65 cornflower glass plate. She says that things may have deep sentimental attachments for people because they equate what you leave them with how much you love them.
And when you do write your will, be conscious of its potential impact. Being careless or deliberately hurtful when writing down your wishes can reverberate through generations. A woman I interviewed was so hurt by being treated unequally in her father’s will that she began to question her paternity. Because her legacy was treated differently and without explanation, she began to wonder if she was actually his daughter. She had been a wartime baby and contemplated trying to get her father’s service record to find out if he was home at the right time to be her father. Her father’s decision also destroyed her relationship with her brother.
As for my friend, he is turning his foreshortened life into a reunion for his beloveds, some of whom have flown across the continent to be at his bedside. His illness has given us permission to flaunt our love for him and each day brings new guests with gifts of shared stories from the past, some holding scrapbooks and memorabilia. People with strong backs arrive to help with hospital transport, folks with a gleam in their eye show up to entertain and even tough guys come to hug and cry. Each day brings the delivery of more and more food. My contribution was an outfit for hospital outings, including a Leonard-Cohen-like fedora, a bow-tie with lipstick kisses, a dashing scarf and socks covered with images of cigars and martini glasses. My friend is dancing out of this existence and opening his heart to welcome us on his journey. By letting us celebrate with him the gift of life, he is using his last days to strengthen and deepen his legacy of friendship, community and connection.