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Making Memories Last: The Art of Legacy Work

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scrabook.jpgBy Wendy Griffith, L.C.S.W., Department of Social Work

Take a moment and think about someone close to you who's died. A grandparent, parent or friend . . . it can be anyone.

Were there any parts of themselves they left behind for you to remember? It could be anything: a recipe, picture, diary or family heirloom? It could be something as simple as a conversation the two of you had about what was important to him or her.

Intentional or not, we all leave behind these pieces of ourselves that others will remember us by. These memories, these mementos are our legacy.

A diagnosis of cancer often leads people to think about their legacy and what they're leaving behind. Initially, those thoughts may focus on financial matters. But as time passes, there's almost always a shift to the existential.

Unfortunately, all too often, these thoughts stay thoughts and aren't actually put into motion.

"Legacy work" is the process of transforming these thoughts into action. It's the act of sitting down and taking time to purposefully create something for the people you love and care about.

More about legacy work
Legacy work isn't about death and dying, it's about life and living. It's about making connections and sharing precious moments with the special people in your life.

At its most fundamental level, it can be a meaningful way to spend an afternoon. At its best, legacy work provides a unique opportunity to reflect on your life and process through the events and people who shaped it, while still planning for the future. It can be a powerful coping tool not only for you, but for the people around you.

Leaving a legacy gives your loved ones something tangible to hold on to, something that can provide healing and comfort year after year, and generation after generation. It's a reminder of who you were, what you loved, what was important to you and what contributions you made.

One of the most important things to know about legacy work is that there are no rules, no restrictions, no limitations and no eligibility criteria. You don't have to be old, you don't have to have a lot of money or time and you don't even have to have a terminal diagnosis.

Turning thoughts into actions

Your legacy project could take any form. Elaborate or simple all are meaningful.

  • A scrapbook (with pictures/keepsakes related to a particular time in your life, a loved one, a favorite vacation destination, etc.)
  • A collection of your favorite recipes
  • A blanket made out of your favorite T-shirts or other fabric items
  • A life review worksheet
  • Handprints of you and/or your loved ones in plaster
  • A video montage (of your best advice, your most cherished memories, stories about your family history, etc.)
  • Cards written or gifts purchased for a future birthday, holiday or special occasion
  • A poem or a song created specifically for your loved one(s)
If you're undergoing cancer treatment, you may think that you don't have enough time or energy to work on a legacy project because you're at the hospital receiving treatment or at home recovering. But the beautiful thing about legacy work is that it can be done anywhere and in any amount of time that you have.

It doesn't even have to be you doing the work. If speaking is difficult, try the activities that involve writing or creating things with your hands. If writing is a challenge, try doing a video or dictate it to someone who can write. And if fatigue is a concern, ask a loved one for help.

The wonderful thing about leaving your legacy is that it's yours to leave. It takes whatever form you give it and it carries whatever meaning you instill in it. No matter what form your legacy takes, you can be assured that it will become a timeless extension of yourself that your loved ones will cherish forever.

Need more information?
Sometimes, starting the process of legacy work can seem daunting or a little overwhelming. So, here are some resources that might help guide you:

If you're struggling with where to begin, or if you need a little help along the way, talk with your social worker. We're here to help.

If you're an MD Anderson patient, you can get in touch with your social work counselor by calling the Department of Social Work at 713-792-6195, by visiting our office or by asking your nurse or doctor to speak with one of us during your next visit. 

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