We can’t always control the narrative of our lives—what happens to us, how we’re perceived, and so on. It’s true you should do everything possible so those close to you understand your thoughts and feelings, and how much you love them. But, sometimes vulnerability is difficult. A legacy letter is a great way to address your loved ones even after you’re gone. It’s also important not to blow this opportunity and leave things unsaid.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Step 1: Consider Your Current Situation
- Step 2: Gather Relevant Inspiration and Details
- Step 3: Find a Good Environment to Write in
- Step 4: Think of Your Family’s Future
- Step 5: What’s Your Heart Still Saying to You?
- Step 6: Finalize Your Letter
- Step 7: Put It in a Safe Place
- Legacy Letter Example
Perhaps before you begin writing, you should consider if this is a series of letters for different family members at different stages of life.
How much do you have to say? Would it make more sense to plan out a few letters versus just one large one? If you’re not ready to work out this detail just yet, hopefully these steps will at least get one letter drafted. You'll also find an example letter below.
Step 1: Consider Your Current Situation
What’s on your heart right now? What’s driving you to want to sit down and write this letter? It may be that you’re in the process of end-of-life planning, and you thought it would be a good thing to spend some time on. Or, for that matter, perhaps you’re being overly proactive about the sentiments you want to leave your family after you’re gone. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Whatever your reason, consider how much weight you want it to have on what you say. For example, if your health could be better, is this what’s controlling the narrative? Are you being forced to face the consequences of certain actions? Dealing with regrets? Or, would you rather focus on recounting good memories with your family and tell them how much you love them? Do you need to express a bit of both?
It may also help you to write a letter to your future self to work through some of these emotions.
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Step 2: Gather Relevant Inspiration and Details
If there are specific ideas, quotes, or more that you’d like to include, do what you can to set yourself up for success. Jot down these key ideas or surround yourself with reminders, like photographs or mementos, to ensure you don’t forget anything.
While you can always add things in at the end of your letter or revise your draft, it’ll make the process go much more smoothly. You should also be thinking of any special family stories to include in your letter or letters.
Step 3: Find a Good Environment to Write in
Beyond something to write with, a writer’s environment is one of the most crucial tools. You should ensure that you’re in a comfortable spot with the right amount of good distractions. This might be things like a beverage, music, some fresh air, or a candle burning to set the mood.
And, it may not be a bad idea to write without the rest of your family around. Even though this shouldn’t serve as a reason to be secretive, it’ll likely make the letters that much more special. If you can’t keep the fact that you’re writing legacy letters a surprise, you can at least keep the actual contents of the letters under wraps.
Step 4: Think of Your Family’s Future
While it’s important to think of your circumstances and what’s taking precedence in your mind, it’s essential to think of your family’s future, too. What milestones might you be absent for? What sentiments do you have for them in these moments? What practical information or advice will help them in these situations?
These legacy letters serve as your way of being there for them even when you can’t actually be there for them. It’s hard to imagine you’d only have a few words to share with your family in any given situation.
You may feel as though sharing too much or too often may overwhelm them. With some thought, you should be able to find the words to remind them you’re still in their heart, and you love them beyond life and death.
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Step 5: What’s Your Heart Still Saying to You?
Now that you’ve written a good bit of your letter, what do you feel is missing? Did you really cover it all? Listen to what your heart is still saying to you. From here, you can decide if you can squeeze these ideas into your current letter or if it would make more sense to write another one instead. Re-reading your letter and being kind (but critical) of your work will also help you make any necessary edits as well.
If you feel stuck or that you’re out of ideas, it’ll serve you best to walk away from your project for a bit. If you’re not under any sort of time crunch, take a few days at least. Or, if you feel re-motivated after a shorter break, go ahead and pick it back up.
Taking some time away will give you and your ideas room to breathe. Plus, it’ll be easier to see if your letter has any holes or missing details once you re-read it with fresh eyes.
Step 6: Finalize Your Letter
Presentation is important. You don’t have to be known as an award-winning author among your family members to leave a lasting impression. After all, if you’re writing from the heart, it’s impossible for your family to not cherish your words all the same.
As you’re finalizing your letter or letters, think about other details, such as any sort of wrapping paper, packaging, or unique letterhead. Going a few extra steps to make your legacy letter appear special will hold that much more meaning for your family for years to come.
Consider handwriting your letters as well as providing digital, backup copies, for example. That way, your family can share them among themselves and read them whenever they please. Plus, if you have any issues with legibility, you won’t have to fret as much.
Step 7: Put It in a Safe Place
Perhaps even more crucial than crafting a worthwhile letter is ensuring that your family actually receives it. If you’d like to create some sort of group activity or scavenger hunt out of finding your letter, that might be fun, too.
You may choose to designate a certain family member to deliver your letter or letters, or perhaps you’d like to leave them along with other important documents for after your death.
It's also common to include these legacy or final letters as part of your estate plan or will. Trust & Will is a fast, easy tool for creating an online will in minutes. You can easily include additional requests, letters, and more for your family.
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Step 8: Consider Other Final Wishes
Last but not least, use this as an opportunity to consider any other end-of-life plans or final wishes. What do you want to happen to your body when you die? Where (or how) do you want to be laid to rest?
In addition, how do you want your family to celebrate your life? Would you like a traditional, in-person funeral, a celebration of life, or a virtual memorial with an innovative platform like GatheringUs? There are no right answers, but it's important that you start asking these questions.
Legacy Letter Example
Dear beloved family,
If you’re reading this letter, I hope you’re not doing so with sadness as much as you are with joy. If I leave any typos or grammatical errors or overuse commas, quite frankly I don’t want to hear it. Just kidding. Feel free to call a meeting and let me know how I can improve. You’ll know where to find me.
I love all of you so much. Though I won’t be able to be there for all of the birthdays, graduations, holidays, Tuesdays, and weddings (wink wink) as I’d like, I hope this letter and the attached personalized letters will close some of the space you may feel between us. But don’t forget to look up. I’m up there. Somewhere. I don’t know, I may be over Southern France on that given day, but I’ll try to check my schedule often and fly over when you need me.
A few quick things for everybody to remember:
- Even your worst day can get better. Remember how I met your mother? I wrecked my favorite car and my leg. But that wreck brought me your mother, and it brought me you all.
- Love even your enemies. It sucks, it does, but if they’ve got anything bad coming to them, it’ll come. You don’t have to lose your morals or yourself to bring their downfall. They’ll bring it upon themselves.
- Always be honest. With yourselves, with your loved ones. Life is very long, but it’s also too short to be dishonest. The truth will always come out, but in between the lies and truth is discomfort and a lot of bad energy you don’t need — and that can follow you around for years and years.
- Exercise a lot and often. But eat plenty of dessert, too. I made it this far living like that, and I don’t regret any sweets I ever ate. I also don’t regret any time I pushed myself in my workouts, either. I expect to see at least one of you in the Olympics in the coming years (or at least go pro). Don’t let me down.
- Thank people and be kind. Go out of your way. Thank your waiter or waitress, thank the mailman, thank each other. Do not live life ungratefully. It’ll get really old really fast. Thank people even for no reason at all, just that they’re alive and in your life. It’ll probably make you feel even better than them.
- Tell people you love them more often than you think you should.
In the attached package, you’ll find letters for each of you. I hope what I’ve provided won’t leave you disappointed. You know I’ll be around to talk to if you have any issues. Like I said, call a meeting for any complaints.
Love you forever,
Dad/Grandpa/That Weird Old Guy Who Ate All the Food
Help Build a Lasting Legacy
Letters may seem like a small thing to leave behind to your family. But, often, it’s your words and sentiments — something that costs nothing at all — that will have the most value for years to come.
If you’re the first in your family to write legacy letters or add to your family’s history in this way, your efforts just might start a new and lasting tradition for generations to come.
Looking for more ways to preserve your family history? Read our guide on how to write a family history book or essay.