As a hospital chaplain, whenever I am called into the room of a patient who has died, I find myself tending to their family and others who are left behind, as they cope with their grief. As nursing staff finalize the paperwork and make the necessary arrangements of contacting a funeral home, I seek to be a spiritual presence as family members express their grief in various ways. But in these moments, I also try to learn from the family members about the life of their loved one. Hearing these stories helps me catch a glimpse of that person’s legacy—even if I had never met them.
“Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see,” says the character Hamilton shortly before being killed by Aaron Burr in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s widely acclaimed theatrical production bearing the same name. While I like to believe we can help sketch an outline of our legacy through our passions, relationships, and how we express our compassion for others, we ultimately cannot paint the complete portrait of our legacy.
The first way we can perhaps work towards this effort is through storytelling.
Recently, a colleague of mine found a journal from an ancestor that documented her life experiences in the mid-1800s as she endured strife and struggle of her time. The journal, which has now been converted into a book, illustrates who she was as a person, while also inspiring her descendants in their quest to overcome adversity in their own lives.
Often, it is a misconception that no one would be interested in seeing our journals, creative poetry, lyrics, or even vlogs we have created. But for those who are left behind after we die, these are gifts that tell our story about who we were, the world we lived in, the challenges we faced, and the drive we found to overcome them.
Beyond the stories we share or those we record, perhaps the most important way we can help sketch the meaning and purpose of who we were in our time here is by how we make others feel.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” Maya Angelou once wrote.
When it comes to memories of my maternal grandfather, I can remember his towering, tall figure, blue eyes, mischievous smile, and jovial sense of humor. But what I remember most of all was how he made me feel; loved and valued. While in our life we can help others by sharing our gifts, our time, and through our shared experiences, it is how we make others feel that will define our legacy.
“The purpose of life is not to be happy,” writes Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.
Like many of you, I am becoming more aware of the passage of time as I grow older, watch loved ones pass away, and reflect on my life journey. Sometimes I regret not taking a moment to appreciate every forge, every valley, and every person I have encountered in my travels leading up to this moment in my life. But like you, I hope that in every moment of laughter with a friend, every hug with a family member, or even a moment of kindness with a stranger, I made others feel embraced with compassion, love, and acceptance. Because when I have experienced these moments, whether it was with family, friends, or strangers, I remember how they made me feel.