It has been shown that telling our own stories can be therapeutic, and can help us better define who we are, what we want, and how we want to impact the people around us. We have all read about how to plan for our end-of-life, and why it is important to pre-plan for our eventual death. But what about preserving our own Legacy? By including the creation of our own legacy in our end-of-life planning, we not only have a say in how we want to be remembered, but we also get an opportunity to share parts of our lives that may otherwise be forgotten. So where do we start?
As in all forms of writing, it is good to start by understanding who your audience is. In this case, it will be the people you leave behind as you shed off this mortal coil. The next step is to get started with the following five questions to help brainstorm and create your own legacy.
You might also find inspiration in published obituaries, like Ashley Ann Kuzma who wrote her own obituary as part of her end-of-life planning before she died from recurrent laryngeal cancer. Even if you are not ready just yet to start drafting the perfect final words in order to build your digital legacy, these questions are an effective way to get you thinking about your life—and death.
Read Part One of our series, Digital Legacies: Preparing for Your Digital Death.
How to Build Your Digital Legacy: The 5 Most Important Questions
1. What are the words you would want people to describe you with?
What kind of mark do you want to leave on this world? You are in control of your own narrative here, so what words would you choose to describe who you are? One helpful trick is to start with three adjectives, and try to be honest with yourself. Are you Caring? Smart? Tenacious? From there you can try and write a 3 sentence story of who you are.
In Ashley’s obit, she doesn’t explicitly describe herself, but you get a real sense of her personality. She even starts it off with some dark humour. Don’t be afraid to let your true self shine through in your writing. This is your legacy after all.
You could also take a cue from William “Freddie” McCullough’s obit who, “was killed when he rushed into a burning orphanage to save a group of adorable children. Or maybe not. We all know how he liked to tell stories.”
What will be your famous last words?
2. What life events shaped who you are?
Once you have a workable list, start asking yourself what is it about these moments that made them major milestones in your life? By exploring the ‘why’, you can better get to the ‘how’. You can start to understand the driving force in your life, and how these moments added up and shaped you into who you are today.
For Ashley, she starts with all the major milestones that made her who she was. She includes the basics—birth, school—and then includes some special moments that stuck out in her life:
“While in college I spent a semester abroad in London and was able to travel to Paris, France, Krakow, Poland (it had been a goal of mine to visit Auschwitz for many years), Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome, Italy. Some of my favorite family vacations include experiencing the awe of the Grand Canyon and enjoying the sun, sand, and family time in the Outer Banks. After I found out my cancer was back for the fourth time, I went to Mexico and saw Chichen Itza. I am extremely grateful for the life that I lived.”
This section of her obit gives you a real sense that she was adventurous, open-minded, and loved to have fun with her life. The addition of her travels after her fourth, and final, diagnosis shows that she was the type of person who embraced her life. By sharing this she is able to impart some wisdom to others, even if it seems less direct.
3. If you could only choose 3 photographs to represent your life, what would they be?
There is a saying that we take photographs of what we love the most. I have a friend who is an avid dog lover, and quit her job to be a professional dog walker. Her instagram is full of beautiful photographs of her adventures with the dogs. When I look at those photographs I get a strong sense of who she is: a gentle, caring person who is compassionate and giving.
When you first read the question, what were the first three photos that came to your mind? Was it a photograph of a loved one? A childhood excursion? A cute image of your dog? Finding the images that resonate most with you when you look at them can help you flesh out your favourite memories and moments in life—the stuff that sticks. Consider how these photos help to describe who you are as a person, and how they compliment what you have already written down.
Your photos may not be digital—a lot of us still keep boxes and books of physical photos—so we wrote a great article on Collecting Family Photos and Preserving Memories to help get you organized.
4. If you could tell your great-grandchildren one thing, what would it be?
Try to imagine sitting down with your great-grandchildren—what advice, or wisdom do you want to leave them? If you find yourself stuck, think of the biggest struggles in your life and what they taught you. Try to write this down into a few succinct sentences, or point form. Adding advice and wisdom to your legacy can bring comfort to those you leave behind, and future generations can inherit something meaningful that is beyond the material.
Mary A. “Pink” Mullaney’s obit is full of valuable advice including, but not limited to: “If a possum takes up residence in your shed, grab a barbecue brush to coax him out. If he doesn’t leave, brush him for twenty minutes and let him stay.”
When my friend James died, he left behind these words of wisdom: “Anything can be solved with a whiteboard and a scented marker.” You can brainstorm yourself out of any situation, remember to write it down, and make it fun with a scented marker, or colourful pen, because life is full of magic if we just learn how to look for it.
5. What do you wish you spent less time doing?
Now that we have focused on what brings the most meaning and joy into our lives by bookmarking important moments, we have to ask ourselves a difficult question: What do you wish you spent less time doing? What life moments didn’t stick out? We often find ourselves spending too much time worrying about what other people think, working too much, or judging ourselves harshly.
You can express your own regrets with a healthy dose of humour. James “Jim” Groth did just this in his obituary when he wrote the following:
“His regrets were few but include eating a rotisserie hot dog from a convenience store in the summer of 2002, not training his faithful dog Rita to detect cancer, and that no video evidence exists of his prowess on the soccer field or in the bedroom.”
Focusing on spending more time creating new moments you would want to share with others, and that you would want to write in your obituary, can help you work towards having a better life now. Don’t just answer this question, try and think of ways you can start effecting change now for the better.
While you’re at it, take Ashley’s advice:
“My wish for you is to stop letting insignificant situations stress you out. Do what is important to you. Relax and enjoy the company of those around you. What do you value in your life? In the end, that’s what matters.”
How Can I Store and Build my Digital Legacy?
There are plenty of online tools that allow you to store images and documents. However it is key to look for a platform that can ensure your information goes to the right person after you die. Not to brag, but our sister company Keeper Memorials does this! You can easily preserve all your memories, write your own biography, and even build your family tree. When you die, the loved one you assign as your “Keeper” will be able to manage it for you.
By utilizing a memorial platform, you can build out your legacy, collaborate with family and friends in the process, and ensure that the stories people tell about you when you’re gone, are the stories you want told.
This is the second article in our three-part series on Digital Legacies. In the first article, we breakdown how to include the digital in your end-of-life planning in Digital Legacies: Preparing for Your Digital Death. Our next article in this series will show you how to write your own obit. Stay tuned!