Family Love Letters

Convey your values, beliefs, wisdom to those who survive you.

Life can only be understood backward; but it must be lived forward. –Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

While it’s certainly wise to spell out clearly what you want to happen to your assets after you’re gone, you inevitably will be leaving behind much more than material items. Your values, spiritual beliefs, hard-earned wisdom, hopes for your descendants, the love you feel for family and friends – all of these important intangibles may well be the greatest gifts you can bestow on those you care about deeply. And while we may hope that we already have transmitted life’s lessons – by word or by deed – to those who will survive us, the reality is that doesn’t always happen.
One approach is to create a “family love letter,” which is also sometimes called an “ethical will.” Family love letters are non binding documents that may or may not accompany their more strictly structured legal cousins but don’t use legalese to make their points. There’s no specified way for creating them, and each one will be as unique as the person writing it.
Family love letters serve a number of purposes and

can be just as beneficial to those who create them as to those who receive them. We all want to be remembered, and while we can’t control how we are viewed once we’re gone, we can pass on facts, feelings, memories, wishes, important events or turning points in our lives, stories passed down to us from our parents and other family members – all the things that go into making us who we are.

A family love letter is an opportunity to tell your life story, explain and provide context for the experiences that shaped your personality, and communicate from a position of thoughtful reflection rather than in the heat or hurry of the moment.

Writing down our values and beliefs often helps crystallize them for ourselves – people who’ve created family love letters say they learned a lot about themselves in the process. Articulating what matters to us and what we hope will matter to those who follow us also can provide a sense of completion for our lives and help us come to terms with our own mortality. You’re probably going to be older than those you are addressing and since we all must face the challenges of aging and the end of life, those are subjects where you may be able to help those who are following in your footsteps.
No one makes it to the finish line without regrets, and a family love letter can also be a way both to ask for forgiveness and to forgive. Those involved can be addressed directly, and perhaps more honestly, in a last letter. If there are things you haven’t been able to say – for whatever reason – or people who aren’t able to listen, a family love letter can provide the opportunity to reach out in a way that may not have been possible before.
To whom should you address a family love letter? Certainly your descendants, but since this document isn’t concerned with transmitting assets or giving instructions, you may also want to include close friends or people who were especially important to you at a certain point in your life. There are really no rules or requirements here – it’s up to you.

Writing down our values and beliefs often helps crystallize them for ourselves

Those familiar with family love letters do say that it’s important to strike the right tone in what you write. This isn’t an occasion for score-settling, blaming or bringing up old conflicts. Choose your words carefully, and put yourself in the position of the recipients: If you were reading a similar document from someone who mattered deeply to you, how would you want it to read?
Compressing what you’ve learned, believe in and hope for into a letter obviously isn’t something you just dash off, so it may help to start with an outline or list of the topics you want to cover. Creating a family love letter takes time, so devoting a little while each day or a regularly scheduled time every week may help in breaking down what can seem huge into pieces that are more manageable. You may go through several drafts before you’re satisfied, so don’t worry too much about getting the wording right at the beginning. You can always refine things, but you have to have a draft to refine.
If it still seems overwhelming or abstract, here’s a question that might help: If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, who would you call, what would you say, and, most important, what are you waiting for?

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