Category Archives: Ethical will

How to Avoid Landmines When Producing Video Ethical Wills.

A reader recently asked, “Two people have consented to [an ethical will] but I think video taping them would be more personal for the receiving family. Can you see some possible landmines?” This was my reply.

There are several things to be cautious of when undertaking a video ethical will.

  • First ensure that your clients prefer a video rather than an audio or printed ethical will.  Some people suffering from a terminal illness don’t want their families to have a lasting image of their decline.
  • Will you have your clients speak directly to the camera or to you off screen? While speaking directly to camera can be effective for an  intimate presentation like this,  it can be intimidating for someone not used to facing a camera.
  • Preparing an ethical will requires a good deal of reflection. Your clients will need time – perhaps a week or more to fashion responses to the questions posed by an ethical will. I would suggest that, if at all possible, have them work on writing down their thoughts before actually videotaping their responses.
  • Avoid having your clients rehearse their responses. This sounds like a contradiction of my previous point but it’s not. You want people to have given sufficient thought to their ethical will but you don’t want them to become fretful about getting it “right”. This will end up producing results that are stiff and not natural.
  • Be aware that you may unlock some painful memories. How comfortable are you with sadness, tears, and anguish? Do you have a counselor you can recommend to your client should things become more than you can handle?
  • Above all don’t rush the process. It takes time.

If you’re interested in learning more about ethical wills, check out my previous articles:

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Image by Mark Chadwick

Ethical Will Course.

In 2008 I wrote and posted this seven-part, self-directed Ethical Will Course. I felt it was time to bring it back and make it available to those of you who may have missed it the first time.

Photo by Caitlin Heller

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My 100th Post!

100-balloonsToday is special. It marks the completion of 100 posts. When I  started this blog back in July, some eight moths ago, I didn’t know if I could come up with three posts a week and enjoy writing them at the same time. It was definitely an experiment. Well, I’m happy to report that I’ve really enjoyed researching and writing the articles.  And it’s been gratifying to receive positive comments from people who’ve found value in my work.

I’ve tried to write for both the professional personal historian and for those of you simply involved in a personal history project with a family member. I don’t know how successful I’ve been at straddling that line. I’d welcome your comments on that. In fact, any comments you have for improvement or changes will be very welcome.  I’ll give each and every one of your suggestions my attention and consideration.

I was curious to see what have been the most popular of my posts.  I’ve compiled a list of the top ten beginning with the post that received the most attention. Many in the top ten had to do with my series on writing your Ethical Will. Perhaps this suggests that another series would be of interest to viewers. What do you think?

And what are some of my favorite posts out of the 100? I’ll pick two – 6 Lessons My Cat Taught Me About Time Management and How a Prehistoric Cave Painting Came to My Rescue . I like these because they bring together quite different subjects in a creative way to make a point. They also have a personal connection. My cat Annie  spends a good part of the morning snoozing on my desk and acting as my muse. And discovering a picture of a prehistoric cave painting spoke to me in a profound way about our need to be remembered and not forgotten.

Here then are the top 10 posts of the past 8 months. Just click on the link to take you directly to the post.

  1. Six Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Personal Historian.
  2. Ethical Wills 101: Part Two~ Discovering Our Values.
  3. Ethical Wills 101: Part One ~ How to Begin.
  4. What do Sidney Poitier and Ethical Wills Have in Common?
  5. How to Interview Someone Who is Terminally Ill.
  6. See How Easily You Can Write Your Life Story Book.
  7. Ethical Wills 101: Part Three ~ Expressing Gratitude.
  8. How a Prehistoric Cave Painting Came to My Rescue.
  9. Ethical Wills 101: Part Seven ~ Putting it All Together.
  10. What You Need to Know About Becoming a Professional Personal Historian.

Photo by David Greenwald

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How to Say Goodbye.

shafts-of-lightMy work both as a hospice volunteer and as a personal historian involves helping people record their stories at life’s end. When we know our time is limited it can focus our mind on what is truly important. There are many ways of saying goodbye. Some people choose an ethical will, something that I’ve written about in previous posts. Others prefer a video or book that chronicles their life. For some it could be a scrapbook filled with a lifetime of memorabilia. And still others put together a photo book that graphically highlights a life lived.

The other day my friend Gwyn alerted me to her son’s blog. Rob Jones has created a wonderful site devoted to the music he loves. It’s called The Delete Bin and what caught my attention were his list of 10 songs about death. One of them was written and sung by Warren Zevon after he knew he had only a short time to live. It is a poignant and powerful reminder that we all need to find a way to say goodbye…even if we are well and hope to go on living for some time. The truth is we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Take a listen. Maybe there’s a poem or song in you that needs to be written now, to those you love.

Photo by Tanakawho

Ethical Wills 101: Part Seven ~ Putting It All Together

If you’ve been working each week on your ethical will, you’ll have filled up a good many pages in your notebook. This week it’s time to put it all together.

Here’s what I’d suggest you do:

  • Read each section ( Beginning, Values, Gratitude, Life lessons, Forgiveness, Regrets, Achievements, Hopes) from the beginning to the end and add any thoughts or comments that you might have missed the first time around. You may have some “Final Thoughts” that you wish to include.
  • Look at some sample ethical wills here and get some ideas of how other people have composed their ethical will.
  • Write out a first draft of your ethical will that incorporates the material you’ve assembled in your notebook over the last six weeks. Don’t try to sound “profound” – just write the way you talk. And remember that there is no “right way” to put you ethical will together. It’s your document and should reflect who you are as much as possible.
  • Now read aloud your ethical will and rewrite anything you stumble over.
  • Once you’re happy with your composition, find some good quality archival paper and acid free ink. This will ensure the preservation of your document.
  • In your best handwriting, copy from your last draft a final version of your ethical will. Even if you’ve been using a computer up till now, I can’t stress enough how much more valuable your ethical will will be if it’s written in your own hand.
  • At this point you have a number of options with your completed ethical will. You can keep it locked away to be given to the recipient after your death. You can deliver it by post or in person now. Or you can read it to the recipient before handing it over. The choice is up to you.

I hope you’ve found these past few weeks worthwhile and enjoyable. If you’ve any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me and I’ll try my best to help you.

Photo by Caitlin Heller

Ethical Wills 101: Part Six ~ Regrets, Achievements and Hopes

This week you have an opportunity to look back and reflect on the regrets and achievements in your life. After that we’ll focus on your hopes for the future and the hopes you have for those you love.


Writing about regrets can help you understand the circumstances that led to the regret and hopefully provide you with some insight. Regrets are inevitable but take some comfort in knowing that we’ve all made some major blunders in our life, so you’re not alone.

In his book No Regrets, Dr. Hamilton Beazley, lists 10 steps to letting go of regrets and the very first step is to write them down.

Exercise: In your ethical will notebook, find a blank page and at the top write the heading “Regrets”. As you look back on your life make a list of your regrets. Don’t worry if some are seemingly insignificant – put them down anyway. For example, one of my regrets is that I never learned to swim. Now this isn’t huge and if I really wanted to, I could enroll in a swimming class for adults. What’s important is that you just begin the process of listing regrets.

Look at your list and select one or two regrets that you consider to be significant. Write about this regret and what you’ve learned and attempt to put it in some perspective. As an example, in my ethical will I wrote,

One of my regrets in life is that I never pursued my belief that I had the potential to be a television or radio host. I’m a natural in front of an audience and my publicity appearances on TV and radio have always been fun. I loved the energy involved. What I know though is that had I pursued that avenue so many other doors would have been closed. I would never have made the films I have and most likely wouldn’t be a personal historian, something I truly love. Besides, if I still have the “bug” I can find avenues to satisfy my interest. Who knows, maybe I’ll host a Community Radio or Television program on “Life after 50.”


The Miriam-Webster Dictionary defines achievement as a result gained by effort. The result can be big or small. It’s the effort that counts. What I want you to consider in this section are your achievements. Our lives may have been filled with prominent achievements or unheralded ones. This is an opportunity to write about what you consider important. My mother believed her main achievements were running a well organized home, being a loving wife and mother and producing the best pastries in the neighborhood.

Exercise:Turn to another blank page in your notebook and write the heading, “Achievements.” To help you reflect on your most important achievements, try answering this question. If you were to be honored for one thing in your life, what would it be? Another way of looking at achievements is to look at what you hope your obituary will one day say about you.


One of my favorite quotes about hope is by American writer Barbara Kingsolver. “The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.”

Exercise: Find a blank page in your ethical will notebook and at the top write, “Hopes.” What is it that you hope for? How have you lived inside your hope? What do you hope for your loved ones?

Some books you might find helpful:

Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Overcoming Regrets, Mistakes, and Missed Opportunities

Finding Hope: Ways to See Life in a Brighter Light

Maximum Achievement: Strategies and Skills That Will Unlock Your Hidden Powers to Succeed

Next week the conclusion of our Ethical Will series, Part Seven ~ Putting It All Together

Photo by woodleywonderworks

Ethical Wills 101: Part Five ~ Expressing Forgiveness

It’s appropriate that this week’s ethical will article is about forgiveness. At sundown on Monday, September 22nd, Rosh Hashanah began, one of Judaism’s High Holidays. It’s a ten day observation that amongst other things is a time for introspection, asking for forgiveness and giving forgiveness.

All of the world’s major faith’s include forgiveness as a principle tenet.

Buddhism ~ To understand everything is to forgive everything. (Buddha)

Christianity ~ Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:32)

Islam ~ Keep to forgiveness, and enjoin kindness. ( Qur’an 7:199-200)

Judaism ~ When asked by an offender for forgiveness, one should forgive with a sincere mind and a willing spirit. . . forgiveness is natural to the seed of Israel. (w:Mishneh Torah, w:Teshuvah 2:10)

Implicit in these admonitions is the realization that an important foundation of a healthy individual and society is an avoidance of anger and revenge. Today ‘s medical researchers are also discovering that forgiveness has positive health benefits. Katherine M. Piderman, Ph.D., staff chaplain at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, lists thirteen benefits from practicing forgiveness.

  1. Lower blood pressure
  2. Stress reduction
  3. Less hostility
  4. Better anger management skills
  5. Lower heart rate
  6. Lower risk of alcohol or substance abuse
  7. Fewer depression symptoms
  8. Fewer anxiety symptoms
  9. Reduction in chronic pain
  10. More friendships
  11. Healthier relationships
  12. Greater religious or spiritual well-being
  13. Improved psychological well-being

It’s important to remember that forgiveness is not forgetting or condoning bad behavior. You may never be able to forget someone’s unwarranted actions. But forgiveness can release you from the grip of resentment and thoughts of revenge.

An ethical will is a place where you can not only forgive others but can also ask forgiveness for hurtful actions on your part. Forgiveness is not easy. It is a slow process that begins by reflecting on how a particular action has made you feel and your commitment to work toward forgiveness. You can find out more about this process at Learning to Forgive and The Forgiveness Institute

Exercise One: Take your ethical will notebook and turn to a blank page. At the top write “Forgiveness”. It may strengthen your “forgiveness muscle” by doing a little warm up exercising. For the next seven days, at the end of each day, write down a list of incidents that occurred to you that you’ll forgive. They can be trivial or serious. And don’t forget to forgive yourself for mistakes you might make. Here’s a sample list:

Day One –

* I forgive the driver that tailgated me.

* I forgive the rude clerk in the grocery store.

* I forgive myself for being late for an appointment.

* I forgive my friend for forgetting my birthday.

As you write down each of your forgiveness items, take a deep breath and as you exhale let go of any lingering anger or judgment. Remind yourself that the past has passed. Focus on the present knowing that clinging to old grievances will do nothing but keep you unhappy.

Exercise two: Make a list of all the times you can think of where you have wronged various people in your life. Now at the bottom of your list write the following, “I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. With the wisdom of hindsight I would have behaved differently. That was the past. Now I forgive myself for my actions and move on.”

Exercise three: Take time to reflect on the years you’ve known the person to whom your writing your ethical will. Recall any incidents where you still harbor some grievance towards that person for something that was done to you. Now write the following, “With all my heart I want to express my forgiveness for the time when…….” For example, “With all my heart I want to express my forgiveness for the time when you challenged my decision to leave my corporate job and become self-employed.”

As well as giving forgiveness you may wish to seek forgiveness from this same individual. Again think of times when you may have wronged that person. Now write, “Please forgive me for the time(s) when……..” For example, “Please forgive me for the times when I’ve not acknowledged your help with my parents. I’m truly sorry.”

Check out the following books for more help.

Forgive for Good by Dr. Fred Luskin

Forgive and Forget by Lewis B. Smedes

The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace by Jack Kornfield

Next week in our Ethical Will series, Part Six ~ Regrets, Achievements and Hopes.

Photo by Hamed Saber

Ethical Wills 101: Part Four ~ Life Lessons Learned

An important aspect of an ethical will is being able to share with others the life lessons we’ve learned over the years. Why is this important? To begin with it’s useful to reflect on how much wisdom we’ve actually gained from our experiences. Some of our most profound lessons learned come from the so-called “bad” events in our lives. For me, at the tender age of twelve, I lost my dear dog, Mickey. It was a devastating event. We had been inseparable. From that and the loss of another dear friend years later, I eventually learned that nothing remains constant. Everything changes and no matter how much we may love another intensely it cannot stop the inevitable – their death. Today, a life lesson I know from experience is that we must live and love each day as if it may be our last.

Sharing our life lessons with others permits them to understand what guides us. And I think it’s also a way for people to begin to reflect on their own lessons learned. For the young our ethical will can provide a living example of the power of life experiences to teach us wisdom.

Exercise: Turn to a blank page in your ethical will notebook and at the top write, “Life Lessons.” Now use each of the following prompts below to write down your lessons learned. Some of these may not apply to you. Skip those and move on to the next. Remember that you’ll eventually transfer your notes to the front of your notebook when you finalize your ethical will at the end of the series. As with my personal example above, try to give the background story to a lesson you’ve learned.

From my father I’ve learned….

From my mother I’ve learned….

From my favorite teacher I’ve learned….

From my best friend I’ve learned….

From my work life I’ve learned….

From my (partner, spouse) I’ve learned….

From my children I’ve learned….

From my brother I’ve learned….

From my sister I’ve learned….

From my neighbor I’ve learned….

From my cat I’ve learned….

From my dog I’ve learned….

From old age I’ve learned…

What I’ve learned from failure is….

What I’ve learned from success is….

What I’ve learned from my faith is….

Watch next week for Part Five ~ Expressing Forgiveness.

Photo by Todd Baker

Ethical Wills 101: Part Three ~ Expressing Gratitude.

This week’s post is about gratitude. Why bother including this in your ethical will? Here are several good reasons:

  • research indicates feelings of gratitude may be beneficial to our emotional well-being (Emmons & McCullough, 2003)
  • expressing gratitude to another provides a moment of grace and joy for that person.
  • academic studies indicate that grateful people are on the whole less materialistic than the general population and tend to suffer less anxiety about status or accumulating possessions.

Preparing your ethical will is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on what you’ve been given by others. And examining in detail all that you’ve been given generates a natural feeling of gratitude. So, let’s begin work on this week’s ethical will exercise.

Exercise: Take your ethical will notebook and turn to the next available blank page. At the top write the heading “Gratitude.” The notes you write here will eventually become part of your final ethical will draft.

Now write the following sentence. “What I have received from… (insert the name of the person to whom you’re writing your ethical will)”

Here’s an example. Writing of my mother I said, “What I have received from my mom is her unconditional love, her support and encouragement when I needed it, the importance of politeness, consideration and grace and the value of loyalty.”

What are the things that you’ve received? When you’ve compiled your notes take time to go back and for each item expand upon it so that it’s phrased as an expression of gratitude. Keep in mind that when you write about gratitude it’s best if you explain a specific incident that illustrates why you’re grateful.

Example. Continuing with my mom I wrote, “I’m ever grateful for your support and encouragement when I’ve needed it. When I was beginning my career as a documentary filmmaker many years ago, you were not only one of my early “fans” but you came to my financial rescue on several occasions. Without your support I know I may never have succeeded.”

The idea is to provide substance and detail to your expressions of gratitude. Don’t just say, “I’m grateful for your love.” Rather, say something like,”I’m grateful for your love. I know that there are days when I’m too exhausted from work to feel much like talking. You’ve always been sensitive to that and given me the space I need. Thank you for that. It has meant so much.”

You may want to continue your exploration of gratitude and discover the benefits that can accrue to you. One suggestion is to keep a “Gratitude Journal.” At the end of each day write down at least five things you’re grateful for that day. I find it’s also useful to add a reason after each thing you’re grateful for. For example, “I’m grateful for the comfortable bed I sleep on because so many are homeless and sleep on the street.” And here’s an important point. The things you’re grateful for don’t have to be “earth shattering.” They can be simple things that make your life worthwhile….like a comfortable bed.

Robert A. Emmons, professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, is one of the foremost authorities on the topic of gratitude in North America. He has said,

... it’s important to stress that gratitude is really a choice. It doesn’t depend upon circumstances or genetic wiring or something that we don’t have control over. It really becomes an attitude that we can choose that makes life better for ourselves and for other people… When things go well gratitude enables us to savor things going well. When things go poorly gratitude enables us to get over those situations and to realize they are temporary.

You might find these two books by Emmons useful additions to your library, Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier and Words of Gratitude for Mind, Body, and Soul

Next week watch for Ethical Wills 101: Part Four ~ Life Lessons Learned.

Ethical Wills 101: Part Two ~ Discovering Our Values

In Part One I wrote about getting started on your ethical will. In Part Two we’ll look at how to discover our values.

What are values? The American Heritage Dictionary describes a value as: A principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable. And believe it or not Elvis Presley said, Values are like fingerprints. Nobody’s are the same, but you leave ‘em all over everything you do.

I like to think of values as a part of our DNA. For each person they are unique. They explain what motivates us, what angers us, what we cherish. Knowing our values gives us a clue as to who we are. Our values develop over time and are shaped by our parents, teachers, community and religious affiliation.

So how do we uncover our real values? Let’s start with three simple exercises. These are not meant to tell you what your values should be, they simply provide a way to discover what your values are.

Exercise one: Open your ethical will notebook that you started last week. Leave a few blank pages from the first page where you wrote your introduction. These will be the pages on which you’ll write the final draft of your ethical will. After these few blank pages write the heading, “My Values.”

Think of a best friend and the qualities you admire in that person. For me, the qualities I admire in my friend are loyalty, humor, dedication, fairness, and honesty. Now take a moment and write down the qualities you admire in your friend. As you look at your list, ask yourself, “Would these qualities describe me as well?” Chances are most of them would. And why? Because we make friends with people who tend to share the same values as ourselves.

Here’s another exercise to try:

Exercise two: Ask yourself, “What are some things that really tick me off?” For me, pomposity, impoliteness, and arrogance get me pretty steamed. So what are the things that can really upset you? Take a moment to write down your list. Within this list you’ll find good clues to some important values you hold. When a value that’s important to us gets stepped on or violated it upsets us. Let me illustrate using my own example. Pomposity goes against my value of unpretentiousness. Impoliteness violates my value of politeness and arrogance assaults my value of humbleness.

Try this next exercise to unearth some more of your values.

Exercise three: Write down at least three things that give you real pleasure and joy. For example, for me that would be:

  1. Discovering new things and learning new stuff.
  2. Witnessing a magnificent sunset.
  3. Seeing a dear friend after a long absence.

What are some of the things that bring you pleasure? After you’ve compiled your list take a look at each item and see if you can pull out some of the underlying values. For example, my pleasure in discovering new things and learning new stuff taps into my values of learning and exploration. My joy at seeing a beautiful sunset links to my values of beauty and spirituality. And seeing an old friend connects with my valuing friendship.

By now you should be developing a pretty good list of some of your core values. If you want to explore this topic in more depth consider these books: What Matters Most : The Power of Living Your Values and Values Clarification

You may want to reflect on your list and see if some other values of yours come to mind. Perhaps there are some important values that you have missed in your list. Remember these are your personal values not your parents’ or your society’s.

The next step. Put your values into a sentence that will become a part of your ethical will. Using myself as an example, I’d take my values recorded above and write, “Some of the values that have guided me over the years have been loyalty, humor, dedication, fairness, honesty, unpretentiousness, politeness, humbleness, beauty, spirituality and friendship.”

If you want to add some “meat” to your list try taking one or two of your most cherished values and recount a personal story that illustrates how these values were put to use in your life. If you need some inspirational guidance check out This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women

That’s it for Part Two. I hope you found this worthwhile and fun at the same time. Don’t forget to return next week for Part Three ~ Expressing Gratitude.