What is Your Legacy?

The Iconic Golden Gate Bridge \ Photo by Emily Scott

The Iconic Golden Gate Bridge \ Photo by Emily Scott

We lost many iconic figures in 2016 – the list seems longer than usual.  The fact that I am on the tail-end of middle age and thus aware of more famous people has something to do with my perception.  While many of the deceased crossed generational boundaries, Carrie Fisher’s death – and her mother’s, Debbie Reynolds – seemed to be the two that hit many the hardest.  The tribute to only them on the Golden Globes illustrated the point.

The media quoted many with sentiments of shock and sadness, “I feel so old,” “I can’t believe she was so young,” “She was my age,” “Carrie was my idol for so long,” and “I am brokenhearted.” 

The passing of legendary figures hits us uniquely.  We have our own memories that are coupled with these people.  What we were doing when a song was playing, who we were with when we saw a movie, how an invention changed our lives, and how we conceived of what their lives were like. 

When the person is our age, we are reminded of our own mortality in a very public way.  When Steve Jobs passed away, his sister’s eulogy was printed in newspapers.  When Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, Dave Goldberg, unexpectedly died, she publicly communicated her sadness on Facebook in the most eloquently beautiful way. 

I remember thinking, at those times and at others, “What would be said of me when I die? Have I told every person and every organization how important they are to me?  Have I been a thoughtful communicator for the future when I am not here?” 

This led to a complete overhaul in my will and health planning.  My documents had been very buttoned up; well, as precise as they could be when the ‘time of death’ is unknown.  As practical as the paperwork was, none of it spoke to who I am and how I think and feel.  The soul searching, the inclusion of my values and intentions, dramatically changed those documents.  Now, my family, my friends, my executors, any medical personnel, and the nonprofit beneficiaries will understand what was in my brain and heart.  Expressions of gratitude for the efforts of others during my life and after my death run throughout the documents.  Personal notes have been written, items with designated receivers are noted, and recommendations for help sources are included which is a true extension of who I am given that I love to network people.  Small details are included throughout such as the care and funding for my dogs and even the music for my memorial service (along with my user id and password for my iTunes account).

My philanthropic interests are diverse and fluid.  It became obvious that I needed to give detailed instructions to my trustees on what questions to ask before sending any funds to ensure that the organizations still exist and remain true to the mission that generated my interest.  If not, I offered flexibility to research other nonprofits in the same space.  I also left room to include other organizations or causes that while I had recently become involved with I hadn’t yet revised my estate plan to indicate these new passions. 

Several questions came to mind as I worked through this – I call it the desiderata list:

  • What do I want people to know about their importance in my life
  • What information can I pass on to my trustees so there is little wondering, “what would Emily want” and more confidence in their own judgement
  • How can I cover as much as possible and leave room for flexibility and the unknown
  • Should anyone feel sad or alone, how can I comfort them without being physically present
  • Am I using my worth and words to empower, encourage, explain
  • What is my true legacy that describes this life journey

There is a completeness, a comfort in having done this work. My conversations with those important people and nonprofits have been more intimate, more authentic, and valuable in the present than I can possibly say. I have a high degree of confidence that the above list has been asked and answered - for now.  Of course, I still have the long list of “need to-do’s” and it is now just one item shorter. 

More importantly, I fully appreciate that my life has been an incredible journey and if it ends sooner rather than later, I have shared it all for those who need to know.