If you’re like me, talking about dying isn’t at the top of your list of happy subjects. I’d even rather discuss taxes than death, but in Lyndsay Green’s new book, The Well-Lived Life, we are invited to confront the inevitable by seriously thinking about how death affects those closest to us and how we can make our exit easier and more meaningful for our family and friends after we’re gone. Her book is both inspirational and practical. It takes away the scary feeling in the pit of our stomachs and replaces it with both good common sense tips and inspirational ideas about how to leave a meaningful legacy after we’re gone.
“If we act with an eye to the future—without us,” she says, “we might find the courage to deal with the fallout from difficult decisions. We might face our responsibility to clean up our mess—not just those unsorted papers and piles of memorabilia—but the personal entanglements that, if left untended, can leave heartache and acrimony….We might take steps to minimize the pain of those we leave behind. Maybe if our lives are driven by good values, we might even inspire others to continue our legacy.”
Instead of focusing on our anxieties—fear of ageing, of not being rich, of not being beautiful or successful enough— Green presents a to-do list of what’s possible. It takes our minds from the scary side of pondering death —or magical thinking— to taking steps (as Green describes it) to “live more consciously and be more aware of our impact on others.” It can also be a boost to mental health by removing some of the uncertainty of the unknown.
Like me, you probably keep an up-to-date will. If you don’t –as a huge favour to everyone you love or care about– please make one and have it drawn up properly by a lawyer and witnessed. Do it for your spouse, your kids, your pets and the material objects that you treasure.
A will is the most important document you’ll leave behind and everyone needs one, even if you’re not a millionaire. There’s your stuff to consider, or the transfer of skills. One woman in Green’s book wishes to leave her sons a script for cooking a turkey dinner while others are challenged to find the “right charitable fit that meets their expectations and aligns with their values.”
We ought to ensure that our wishes are properly carried out. Actually, Green suggests that underestimating our impact on others is a kind of narcissism. “To say you are unimportant underestimates the harm you can do.”
Appoint an executor, Green advises, someone younger than you, with the chops to carry out your wishes, deal with government red tape and ensure your last wishes are executed. It can be your spouse, another relative, a trusted friend or professional. Choose wisely. The executor’s task is complicated and time consuming, two reasons to select the most level-headed person you know.
Like me, you might not have an up-to-date list of where everything is; that is, your bank accounts, investments, mortgage, pension, insurance, safety deposit box and anything else you can think of that your heirs will need to sort out your affairs. Since reading Green’s book, I’ve vowed to make this special list because it’s the right thing to do. Keep a banker’s box, an accordion file or even a shoebox where you store this list and other important documents. Tell your loved ones where it is so they are not searching in vain when the time comes.
Along with the nuts and bolts of departing this world, Green also mentions leaving behind a letter, or letters, to those who would appreciate it most. Or those who’ll need it most. The section about letters from the grave is the sweetest section in her book and shows how deeply they’re appreciated. I’ve never thought of doing that, considering it to be “a hand from the grave,” but her beautiful examples of letters to be opened upon death got me thinking about writing two, one to my husband and the other to my daughter. I want them to know how much I love them and how they’ve made my life so vibrant and meaningful.
Apart from those closest to us, Green emphasizes that we don’t always appreciate the impact we’re having on people, positive or negative, and that marginally insignificant, everyday relationships can often point the way to the legacy we wish to leave and how to do it.
This book is anything but morose. What Green invites us to do is to construct a well-considered life that is in sync with our most cherished values so that the legacy we leave behind will be authentic, even inspirational— and not a burden to our loved ones. It’s not easy, maybe not even intuitive, but I can’t think of anything more important.