When people first think about what will happen after one dies, it is usually in relationship to the afterlife. Is there an afterlife and what does it look like? While this is a deeply spiritual question that much ink has been spilled over, when it comes to this search among those who are dying, it is often times more about an immediate fear. Before a person dies, they often worry about the legacy left behind and missing the major life events in the family. In order to combat this particular fear, professionals will suggest some form of written or graphic form of leaving a legacy. As you can see below, I have included a recent posting about leaving behind some keepsake for the survivors.
Legacy can refer to the totality of a person’s life, or to the impact or influence of our lives in the world. For those near the end of life — and for their loved ones — legacy building offers powerful comfort at the end of life. It provides a way to ensure a continuing presence in this world and to leave something meaningful behind.
Psychologist Erik Erikson hypothesized that a late stage of personal development is generativity: the need to create a positive legacy that lives on after death — to leave a part of the self to future generations to help guide their lives.
Legacy building provides a way to address fundamental spiritual questions: “How have I made a difference in the world?” “What is the value of my life?” “What is my place and purpose in the universe?
Typically, life after death implies going to heaven. A 2005 ABC News poll indicated that most Christians in the United States envision continued existence in a heavenly, other-worldly place after death.
However, the practice of legacy-building expands the way we think about afterlife. For those whose spiritual worldview may not envision or emphasize a supernatural afterlife, legacy building can diminish existential anxiety about death. Legacy building provides “this-worldly” possibilities of eternal life through the indelible impact that we make on those around us. It provides hope of continuing existence through everlasting bonds or ongoing influence in the world.
In recent years, the practice of writing an ethical will has become a popular and useful tool to assure continued presence and influence after death. Ethical wills are documents prepared before death that contain reflections, blessings, instructions, personal histories, or values to be passed on to others.
Also, “living eulogies” can provide great comfort to those facing the end of life. Messages, emails and videos can be sent to people who are seriously ill. Friends and family members can share stories and reminisce about meaningful times. These testimonies of enduring connections and contributions are powerful affirmations of life and legacy.
Counselors dealing with end of life issues increasingly rely on therapies that involve legacy building. In reminiscence therapy, the counselor encourages a patient to recall and share memories and past experiences.
Dignity therapy involves life-affirmation and legacy-building. It is more directive and structured than reminiscence, as a “generativity document” is produced after sessions of recalling and discussing life experiences.
Life review therapy is deeper and more evaluative. Patients reflect on the meaning of their lives, and come to terms with difficult aspects of their past. Typically, this process involves reframing the past in order to more gracefully confront death and more effectively cope with the end of life.
Life after death is often conceived as mysterious and other-worldly, but it is not necessarily so. We create an enduring legacy through day-to-day existence — in who we are, in what we do, and in the totality of our lives. You don’t have to believe in heaven to find life after death.