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Legacy letters let you determine how you want to be remembered

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Suzanne Pekow Carlson, 38, of St. Paul is an advocate for legacy letters.
Suzanne Pekow Carlson, 38, of St. Paul is an advocate for legacy letters.
Courtesy of Suzanne Pekow Carlson

Suzanne Pekow Carlson has a three-paragraph letter her mother wrote the night before she died of pancreatic cancer.

It was not enough, Carlson said. But it remains one of her most prized possessions: The last words of the grandmother her children never knew. 

Carlson, a former producer at MPR News, tried to convince her mother to write a legacy letter — a written record of her beliefs, values, advice and how she would want to be remembered — before she became ill.

But death was an uncomfortable subject and the letter, which is sometimes called an ethical will, waited. 

Her experience propelled her to be a passionate advocate for the writing of legacy letters. 

"The fact that my mom did not get to finish this letter, really makes me want to help people think about this before they're sick, before they're old," said Carlson, who is a certified legacy navigator. "Think about it while you're young and not have a stigma of death attached to it.

"My mission is to get people to think about this now," said the 38-year-old mother of four young children. The family lives in St. Paul. 

Book author: 'The idea of being remembered'

Carlson's experience is not uncommon, and that's why Dr. Barry Baines, of Minneapolis, recommends writing a legacy letter right now.  

Baines, 67, is a hospice medical director and the vice-president of  celebrationsoflife.net, an online end-of-life community. He wrote the book "Ethical Wills, Putting Your Values on Paper." 

Being around death all day has made him a powerful advocate for legacy letters, some of which stand out in his memory. He started this work in 1998. 

An ethical will is not a legal document and is not new — there are references to the tradition in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles, according to Baines' website.

The letters are generally meant to be shared with family and friends when the author is alive. 

Most are incredibly powerful, like the first legacy letter ever written in Baines' hospital.

It was written by a man named Dennis, who was in his early 40s and dying. He was suffering from extreme existential angst because he didn't think he had accomplished much in his short life, and he thought he had nothing to leave behind to his wife and two young children.

"He felt he was a failure in life and now he was dying, would not make his mark and he'd just be forgotten," Baines recalled. "I said, well maybe Dennis doesn't have much in the way of valuables to bequeath his family, however what about values? 

"This idea that this might be appealing to him, might give him some of this transcendence, the idea of being remembered," Baines said. 

He wrote the letter and it was a gift to his family. 

Baines said you can start your own legacy letter by answering three short questions: 

• How do you want to be remembered? 

• What's something you've learned from your parents? 

• What challenges have you overcome? 

Answer those, and you are well on your way to leaving your family your legacy. 

Start your legacy letter at  https://celebrationsoflife.net/

Correction (Dec. 18, 2018): Suzanne Pekow Carlson is the mother of four children, not three as previously reported.