Yesterday I started writing my Emotional Will at the inaugural workshop created and hosted by my friend, Rhonda Smedley and her wonderful Walkerville Connect & Thrive with Age team. What’s an Emotional Will? It records the essence of you: your memories, special moments, favourite things and letters you write to the special people in your life to be given to them after your death. It’s handwritten which I found hard (is my writing even legible?) yet adds so much to the creative making process and to the reading by future generations. I know this to be true from reading handwritten letters on beautiful paper and on those thin-papered blue airmail letters from past generations in my family. A friend also shared on facebook that “I still read my Grandmother’s letters to give me comfort”. Am thinking I might also make a digital copy so my writing can be deciphered by my great great great grandkids and some photos and videos added to give it more life.
I first came across the concept of an Emotional Will a few years ago in the beautiful Australian book Dying To Know: Bringing death to life. It’s a cute little folded sheet of grey paper invitingly tucked into a red envelope flap on the inside back cover. Unfolded, the page draws you in to hand write, in the lined space provided, “some personal thoughts and messages to those close to you” under the prompts:
- “Your favourite recipe. It was Grandmas’s. Now you are its guardian
- This is a book I am going to really miss. Think of me if ever you read it.
- Here’s my favourite joke. Dad left it to me, now you must keep it alive.
- Thank you for this memory. I treasure it.
- I always wanted to tell you this but was too shy/afraid/embarrassed.
- I cant remember whether I’ve told you this before but …
- There is something I have learned that I would like you to know.
- If you watch this film, think of me. It was my favourite.
- Have you ever thought about trying …. I reckon you’d be great at it.“
I remember thinking this was such a special, important, good thing to do. Answers to those prompts flooded into my head. That was several years ago and I have done nothing about it. I always feel like I have plenty of time to do this end-of-life stuff, but what if I don’t and my final breath is unexpectedly my next one. That is why this workshop yesterday was so powerful. It creates a space in our busy lives to actually put pen to paper and get something written. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just write from the heart in the moment. We know our memories, our fav things and the things we want to and need to say to those we love. The workshop was 3 hours in the morning and we will repeat this for the next 2 Mondays.
A few years ago The Groundswell Project was inspired by the Dying To Know: Bringing death to life book and created the annual Dying To Know Day on the 8th of August every year. They also created the 10 Things To Know Before You Go workshop which introduced Emotional Wills, with their starting point prompts:
- ” Describe a time in your life that you showed great courage
- Describe a time when you experienced joy
- Do you have any regrets? How have these shaped your life?
- What do you remember about your grandparents?
- What were your parents like?
- Who were your mentors and how did they help shape you?
- What is your first memory?
- What is your most memorable childhood experience?
- What was school like for you?
- What was your first paid job?
- Did you have a childhood sweetheart? Share a story about this.
- Where is your most favourite place? Describe it as vividly as you can.“
Inspired by these people and ideas, I explain with excitement and encourage attendees in my Pushing Up Daisies workshop to write their Emotional Will. Now I am enjoying practicing what I facilitate others to do and am actually completing my own end-of-life planning.
It was a nurturing experience being part of the group for a change rather than the facilitator out the front. We are an intimate group of 10. We were welcomed with a hot cuppa and a clear folder with a blank white sticker on the front and several good quality stock white A4 pages inside accompanied by one of those pens that are just a joy to write with. Our facilitator, Viviana Diaz (also a friend), gently guided us through the process. She explained what an Emotional Will is, how the workshop would work and we briefly introduced ourselves to the group. Then the tactile creative making began. We wrote our name on the blank white sticker and took our the first page – the title page – where we again wrote our name and the date. The rest of the morning whizzed by as we fell back into a featherbed of childhood, teenage and adulthood experiences that threw up the memories like feathers floating through the air. Which ones to grab hold of and write about before they disappear again? There are just so many and with them … emotions; the full range, expressed as tears – happy tears, sad tears and everything in between. The little packs of tissues on the table were greatly appreciated by a few of us as we muffled our quiet sobs, blotted our runny noses and dabbed our weeping eyes. Beautiful acoustic guitar music played quietly in the background. The page headings offered us places to land and start writing:
- Memories about my grandparents
- Memories about my parents
- A special mentor/teacher in my life
- Grateful about our relationship
- Special people in my life
We stopped for a break and a cuppa after sharing some of the memories with the group. It was wonderful to see each person light up as they were transported back in time to those wonderful moments with their dearly loved Grandparents and parents; who sadly many are now dead. The little details and sensory descriptions of the place and time brought the stories to life for those who listened. Our memories bounced off each other, triggering even more to come floating by. When one person shared a story about food and her grandparents I remembered Pop’s cheese in our family – so I jotted down a note to remind myself to write that into my Emotional Will. Mum made sure we always had Pop’s cheese in our fridge. So when I was about 8ish-9ish (I think) I remember walking up the hill to the corner grocery store and confidently asking for Pop’s cheese. The shopkeeper was very kind and tried so hard to work out what cheese I was actually after but to no avail. Turns our Pop’s cheese is blue vein cheese which was my Pop’s fav. The memory I shared with the group was about my Pop who I adored and he adored me; my Mum’s Dad – the only Grandparent I knew. He lived in New Zealand, originally from Wales, “Butcher-by-trade” as he would introduce himself suffering chronic breathing problems from working in the coal mines and being gassed in the war. He didn’t have much money but would always send me the most gorgeous ‘baby-doll pyjamas’ (as Mum would call them) and would save up and travel to visit us in Sydney every few years. Our ritual was to walk up the hill to the bus stop hand-in-hand (which he found so hard with his breathing but never complained), catch the bus into the city, see a musical theatre show – always in a box seat, letting us be up close to the action, seeing the expressions and the colourful costumes in detail. I remember Fiddler on the Roof as a sensory standout. Afterwards, we would walk to the fish markets and buy fresh cooked prawns and travel back home by bus. Sitting across from each other on our small, white and grey-flecked, laminated kitchen table we would peel the prawns, putting the shells and guts into the white paper they came in and the peeled prawns into a bowl, with every other prawn popped straight into our mouths with a shared wink and a giggle. Mum would be there preparing dinner, peeling the veges, and listening to our adventure. Then we would eat the prawns with salt and white vinegar with fresh soft brown bread with lashings of butter. I can still taste it. Happy times.
A special reflective quiet space had been created by one of the team, Helen, from flowers in her garden. Each element represented something meaningful to support our morning such as rosemary for remembrance and lavendar to caress our emotions with beautiful roses and their perfume triggering all sorts of memories. In the morning tea break I spent some time there enjoying the moment and coming back into the present moment.
After the break Viviana handed out more sheets with more headings to jog our memories:
- My first paid job
- School for me was …
- My top 10 movies
- My top 10 songs
- My top 10 books
- My favourite recipe
I didn’t finish many of the sheets, in fact I asked for more pages on the Grandparents and Parents sections and still have more to write. We have the rest of this week to write what comes to mind and then we will no doubt have additional topics next week to work with. The end result will be a bound book. My writing feels and looks atrocious to me! I have not handwritten for years and it feels like my writing cannot keep up with my thoughts – also it looks illegible in places. I am trusting in the making process knowing research (in the beautiful book: The Thinking Hand) supports that the gesture of handwriting has a different impact on the brain and creativity than typing on a keyboard.
Am also keen to write individual letters to special people in my life. These will be written on beautiful paper, sealed in colourful envelopes and stored in a pocket in the Emotional Will book. I already know that some letters will be for people who are hopefully still living after my death and they will be given my letter. Other letters will be written to people close to me who have died; the process letting me bring to life what remains left unsaid in my heart. Those letters will remain in my Emotional Will for future generations to read after my death. And interestingly, I sense I want to write letters to a couple of dear friends who I unthinkingly hurt deeply many years ago by my inconsiderate actions and as a result they are sadly no longer in my life. I do not want these letters given to them because I do not want them to have to relive times that caused them pain; in fact I will probably have a ritual and burn them. It is more the act of writing what needs to be let loose from my heart, to forgive myself, as I never expect or will ask them to forgive me. So this Emotional Will handwriting exercise seems to offers a powerful releasing process that will hopefully allow peace, joy and love to reign in my heart.
My family know where they can find the folder with my will, advance care directive, enduring power of attorney and other legal and personal documents that I have created and brought together in one place. But there is more to to do and to add. Next edition to my end-of-life folder will be my completed Emotional Will. I hope some of the prompts in this post encourage you to pick up a pen and start writing. What a gift from you to future generations in your family!