Your legacy and how to communicate it 0

The Tough Stuff


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How much difference a generation makes! A Chinese grandson, Greg Lee, gave a moving eulogy about his grandmother:

“Grandma bragged about us. Right to the end. About all of us: her kids, her grandkids, which, when you think about it, is funny, given that we all exist because of her. Not just in the literal sense, but because she made us who we are today. What follows is a typical immigrant story, a woman from a poor village who comes to America, lives in poverty, works hard to educate all her children. We Lee’s [descendants] are all Grandma’s life’s work. Her successes and failures ride with us. It is humbling to think that someone so intelligent and wise spent her life so that ours could be better. My takeaway: Don’t waste it, Greg! For me, that’s all the more motivating to live life as freely and fully as possible, not to waste a moment, to appreciate those around us, and [above all] our great family. Grandma, thank you for everything you’ve done for us! Thanks for being there for our parents. Thanks for all your hard work, your selflessness. Without thought of reward, for us. It motivates me each and every day knowing what you sacrificed, knowing how you used your talent and intelligence to get us ahead in this world. Not just so that we could be successful, but so that we could live the lives we want. I promise not to waste [mine].”

It would be easy for Greg to think he was a self-made man or to forget his grandmother since he grew up in a privileged family as the son of a doctor and a lawyer. How rewarding it is for grandparents when their grandchildren understand their lives are part of a continuum!

Greg’s story is familiar to many families. An intelligent immigrant working hard to make a better life for the next generation. Does the third or fourth generation remember their roots? Do they feel any of the same gratitude as Greg does? Today’s grandparents wonder if our grandchildren care one hoot about all we did to create a good life for our children and grandchildren. To be fair, many of us in our 60s and 70s did not go through the first generation experience of incredible hardship. No, we were the lucky ones. Should our grandchildren still feel grateful to us? For the diapers we changed, the tears we wiped, surviving the slammed doors of adolescence, for the opportunities we gave our children, so they could give them to their own children and grandchildren? How do grandparents pass on the legacy they wish to? For grandparents with assets to pass on, the estate plan is the easy part.

Many grandparents live far away from their grandchildren. They can’t smother them with kisses, wipe away their tears, or solve their inevitable problems. They can use technology to be at least a tangential part of their grandchildren’s lives. They can Skype them, connect via FaceTime, text them, share holidays and send gifts, read stories to them, or play Words with Friends. Our commitment and creativity are our only limits.

The greatest gift we can leave our grandchildren is the story of our history, struggles, and what was meaningful to us. That and the notion that they are really and truly loved. We can share the best of ourselves with them. Sure this is not our first choice, but to quote the energy investor Phil Deutch in advising Sheryl Sandberg on how to cope with her husband’s sudden death: “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the sh** out of Option B.”

In any case, we can model an interesting and fulfilling life for our grandchildren by leading productive and caring lives ourselves. There is no end to the volunteer jobs retirees can do. From helping neighbours to finding shipwrecks in the Great Lakes to creating Innovative Products to improve how seniors can function independently. We can be truly caring friends or great storytellers. We can have new careers and explore meaningful volunteer opportunities to give back to the society that enabled us to flourish and helped us overcome our inevitable barriers and setbacks.

Our material possessions may or may not have any meaning for our progeny. However, no matter how infirm or distant we are, we can remind our grandchildren of the foundation on which their lives were built. We can leave our grandchildren our values, and our life lessons. In fact, some enterprising elderly people approaching the end of their lives are writing their own obituaries, some with humour, to relay to their family and friends how they feel about their lives and about dying. Here is an engaging article from the Wall Street Journal about obituary writing for selfies, highlighting one taught in Haverhill in the United States, by Tom Vartabedian, long-time Haverhill Gazette journalist: “An obituary is a testament to a life that has been lived,” Vartabedian told the class. “It’s deeds that are our true monuments … the lives we lead as individuals. And don’t think your life is any less significant than another.”

Maudlin as it seems, writing an obituary gives us a chance to look at our lives, see what we want to add to them, and design how we want to be remembered. A more intimate approach may be writing a letter to children and grandchildren to place in your estate plan or in a special place in your bureau. This would be a more personal, and less public, approach to convey thoughts you want to leave along with your material legacy.

If writing an obituary is too raw for you, you can write a letter to our progeny asking forgiveness or telling them everything we wished you had said when we were alive.

Grandparents want to establish loving and trusting relationships with our grandchildren. We do want to be acknowledged for the sacrifices we have made, though we may not have uprooted our lives, scrimped and saved, to give our children a better chance. We have lost sleep, and put thought into their futures. Certainly adult children and grandchildren have benefitted from our trying to be good parents. However, as we enter our final years, many grandparents question whether we will even be remembered. We have the power to shape the legacy we leave to our spiritual heirs in addition to whatever worldly goods we bequeath to them.

What legacy would you like to leave on the next generation? Share your thoughts with us.

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Ruth Nemzoff

Dr. Ruth Nemzoff is a resident scholar at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center. She lectures on parenting adult children, relationships and family dynamics. Her papers are archived at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she also holds a doctorate in social policy. She has served three terms in the New Hampshire Legislature and was New Hampshire Deputy Commissioner of Health and Welfare. She is the mother of four adult children, four in-law children and grandmother of eight. She lives in Brookline, MA with her husband Harris Berman, Dean of Tufts University School of Medicine.

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