Client names have been changed to protect their identity.

For several years I presented weekly wellness classes to adult men and women cancer patients at a cancer support facility. Most of the classes focused on ways for participants to optimize wellness while undergoing various treatments for cancer. Such classes provided a sense of direction and hope at a time when fear and pain dominated life’s daily landscape. 

I also presented classes to terminally ill patients, often attended with their family members; these classes focused on providing direction and hope through activities that fostered life review and the exploration of meaning so that participants could come to a sense of peaceful completion at the end of life’s journey. One activity we always did was the writing of an ethical will - it is an activity I still do with my private end-of-life clients. Recently I began urging some of my grief support clients to explore ethical will writing to great benefit as a tool for processing the sudden or tragic death of a loved one.

What is an ethical will?

What we learn through what we experience when shared with others is our legacy of values – our ethical will.  Our legacy of values can be framed in terms of values, beliefs, blessings, life lessons, hopes and dreams. Ethical wills come in a variety of forms: letter; videotape (increasingly common at funerals and life celebrations); written statement or essay; or poem.  

Why write an ethical will?

There are many reasons why ethical wills are written, such as:

  • To leave something behind after we are gone
  • To ensure the stories of our lives will not be lost
  • To identify what we believe and value most
  • To take steps to ensure the continuation of our values for future generations
  • To explore the meaning and purpose of life
  • To teach values to our children
  • To improve communication with our children (at any time or stage of life)
  • To come to terms with our mortality

After the death of his wife of 20 years, my client Lee began writing an ethical will to both explore the meaning and purpose of life now that his wife was gone, and come to terms at age 80 with his own mortality. 

“Watching her die of such a terrible cancer was so hard,” said Lee. “It made me afraid that I might not be able to handle a drawn out dying process if it were to happen to me. I mean, I’m not really afraid of being dead, but I am afraid of dying in a painful way.”

As he wrote down the stories of his life, Lee began to see a pattern emerge that brought him a sense of hope and greater peace regarding how he might be able to handle his own dying process. 

“I’ve never really thought of myself as having a lot of courage before,” said Lee. "But I can see that the life stories I’ve been putting down for my son show a lot of courage. Throughout my life when things got tough I rose to the challenge. I think I’ll be able to do that again if need be." 

Writing an Ethical Will to Continue Your Bond and Process Grief 

When there is no opportunity to prepare for or anticipate the death of a loved one, great benefit can be found in writing an ethical will in memoriam. Over time, the legacy of values we have identified can serve to shift our focus away from the pain of loss and toward gratitude for what was gained through having known our loved one.  An example of the healing power of writing an ethical will in memoriam can be found in my client Lisa’s story.

Lisa’s 28-year-old-son son died unexpectedly in an airplane accident. The suddenness of her son’s death and the fact that her son’s body was never recovered complicated my client’s grieving process; at our first meeting two-years following her son’s death Lisa told me she still felt “stuck in an all-consuming anger and despair.”

“It’s so painful that he died,” she said. “I mean, I wasn’t prepared for this to happen. And I still can’t believe it. The worst part is I never got a chance to say goodbye. Now what do I do? After all this time I still can’t figure out what any of this means. He’s gone - now what?”

Together, Lisa and I decided upon the writing of an ethical will as a way to process her grief by establishing a legacy of values as a continuing bond with her son.

Establishing a continuing bond with a lost loved one is a way of moving forward with our grief. The grief theory called continuing bonds (see the blog: Continuing Bonds with Your Loved One after Death) suggests that the focus of a healthy grieving process is for the griever to create and nurture a new relationship with their deceased loved one, a relationship adapted or adjusted to the reality of what was lost (the physical presence of our loved one) and what now remains (our loved one’s psychological presence and on-going life legacy).  According to continuing bonds theory, staying connected with your loved one is not only normal but can also be helpful in coping with grief and the pain of loss. For Lisa that proved true.

Lisa wrote the ethical will over a series of months, starting with stories of her son’s life “triumphs,” and then moving on to what he had learned through “life disappointments and failures.” In the end, Lisa realized that the greatest gift her son had given her was numerous examples of how to start over: a knee injury in high school that ended his hopes of a college or professional football career but led him toward taking flying lessons and getting his pilot’s license; a broken engagement with a long-time fiancé that prompted him to move to California where he thrived personally and professionally; and more. Identifying this legacy said Lisa, gave her “the courage to look for ways to enjoy life again in a world without my son in it.”

Getting Started

You can begin preparing an ethical will by asking the questions:

  • Who is the intended audience? In other words: who will be reading, listening to or watching this legacy of values? Some possible audiences include: self; family; friends; community.
  • What is the reason for writing and sharing this legacy of values?

Whether an ethical will is written prior to one’s own death, or following the death of a loved one, these guidelines and exercises can be helpful in constructing the first draft of an ethical will:

1. Make a list of your/your loved one’s five most important values (for example: family, honesty, integrity, humor, hard work etc.).  If you like, make the list using just one facet of life (for example: “The five most important values I learned from my father/child/mentor/my loved one are” or “The five most important values I learned from my work life/the way my loved one approached work are” etc.). 

2. Make a list of your/your loved one’s five most important beliefs (for example: “every life experience can teach us something of value” or “happiness is something we choose” etc.). Again, if you like, you can make the list using just one facet of life (for example: “The five most important beliefs I learned from my family are…” etc.)

If you like, write a short sentence on where a particular belief or value originated; then write a paragraph on how that belief or value was expressed or applied to life.

If you are writing a legacy of values in anticipation of your own death, you can begin each sentence with: “I have learned” or “my greatest legacy from____________ is...” 

3. If you are writing a legacy of values as a memorial to a loved one, you can begin each sentence with: “(loved one’s name) life/death has taught me” or “the legacy I received from (loved one’s name) is…”   

4. When writing your own legacy of values, it can be helpful to highlight life experiences that served as turning points - experiences that served as a door between what came before and what came after. The way Lisa’s son chose a new life path following his football injury is a good example of a turning point experience.

After a legacy has been stated, each before/after story can begin with: "If I knew then what I know now…"

Once lists are made, decide what form the legacy of values will take:

  • Letter - this is the most popular form for a legacy of values
  • Videotaped or verbal recording – this form is becoming increasingly popular
  • Written statement or essay
  • Poem
  • A combination of the above 

When writing the first draft of an ethical will, write using a method of stream of consciousness. In other words just write without bothering to correct punctuation, spelling or grammar. Writing in this fashion will allow for more vivid memories to come forth and a fuller picture of what was and is important to be conveyed.

If it feels right and if there is time, allow what was written to “rest” for a while before writing a final draft; this will allow for looking at what was written with fresh eyes which will in turn allow for more details to emerge so that the intention of what was written and why can be fully revealed.