What is left behind after a loved one has died? A legacy is an internal conversation that creates a bridge between the deceased and the living. After my parents died, the legacy of their presence in my life started to speak to me. In this sense, death had not completely taken them away from me. Feelings of their presence remained inside me.
The On the Loss of My Parents series is a tribute to my parents, Bruce Alger (1918-2011) and Vi Alger (1919-2010). It is the origin and foundation for my project, “Aging in the Second Half of Life.” On the Loss of My Parents is also an example of how transformative writing can cultivate healing, self-renewal, and understanding that is good for self and others at the same time.
You can’t take it with you
We can’t take our material possessions with us when we die.
Death exposes materialism for what it really is – a misguided, superficial, and sad way to spend our lives. There is no real value in physical property.
My sister and I had to pack up and sell my parents’ home after they had entered into a nursing home. It was a deeply painful and emotionally challenging experience. Very often our work was cut short because of the overwhelming sense of sadness we felt. All the material possessions we collect in life means very little in the end.
In a legal sense, a legacy commonly refers to physical property that has been passed on from one person to another person through a will. This would include material possessions such as money, real estate, jewellery, and furniture.
The feeling of my parents’ material possessions had changed. The dining room table, a constant place of gathering, belonging, laughter, and togetherness, now resonated with a stark sensation of emptiness. The living room furniture, another core area of belonging, seemed to be longing for the return of my mother and father.
In their absence, my parents’ material possessions resonated a deep feeling of emptiness.
The modest physical property that my parents’ had acquired over the years had become available. My sister and I found ourselves not knowing to do with a large part of their possessions, so they were gifted to family, friends, and charities.
Our true inheritance rests in the characteristics, qualities, beliefs, values, ideals, and memories that remain after death. A legacy of life is an inspiring allurement of essential qualities that thrives within us after the loss of a loved one.
A material legacy is the legal dimension of an estate as described in a will, and the subsequent inheritance of the physical things that the deceased leave behind. It is important to ensure that we have properly planned our estate in order to ensure our last wishes are carried out.
The legacy of a person’s life, however, cannot be captured and contained in physical things. When a loved one dies, the essence of their life begins to emerge inside our spirit. Even though we may be immersed in grief, we also feel a new presence emerge deep within the secrecy of the soul.
It is here, in this secret and private space, that we are truly touched by the legacy of the deceased.
Gratitude is our Real Estate in Life
An estate is defined as the aggregate of everything that a person owns or controls at the time of incapacity or death. This typically includes money, property, as well as personal and business assets.
A will is a legal document containing an individual’s set of instructions for distributing his or her assets after death. The executor is the person named in the will who is responsible for carrying out the instructions. The goal of the executor is to “close” the estate by completing all instructions as well as satisfying legal and taxation requirements.
Prior to their deaths, my parents’ home had to be sold in order to finance their stay in a nursing home. The loss of their home was heart-wrenching. I cannot imagine the pain and trauma they must have experienced.
Being an executor felt cold and bitter. After death, it was my responsibility to bring my parents’ estate to a close. Sometimes families become engaged in conflict over the right to take specific material possessions from the estate.
Closing an estate means that a home must become just a house again. The spirit of a person comes coldly legal and banal. The law is such a dreary and stark place.
There is no real estate here.
Freddy the Frog
An heir is a person who inherits, or has the right to inherit, the property of a deceased person. The real property of the deceased cannot be found in their material possessions. The most valuable property can only be discovered in their legacy for life.
However, a physical possession can have rich symbolic meaning for a survivor. A simple item can be representative of a valuable connection to someone. When a physical possession becomes an emblem or cherished symbol it is called a totem.
My mother used to keep a small, green ceramic frog near the sink in the kitchen. It now resides in my home and remains beside the kitchen sink. My mom named him, Freddie the Frog.
Freddie’s mouth opens wide enough to keep a small sponge our scouring pad inside. My mother’s sense of fun and good humour imbued Freddie with a life of his own. I can often hear the subtle echo of my mom playfully talking about Freddie the Frog.
My mom loved to laugh and have fun, and in this sense, Freddie is a totem of her spiritual presence in the here and now.
Physical objects of the deceased can become powerful symbols of remembrance, belonging, and gratitude.
There were also objects in their home that did not seem to inspire remembrance. My parents had a collection of Royal Doulton figurines that were kept in a beautiful cabinet. There seemed to be no sense of memory in these objects; I couldn’t feel the presence of mom and dad in them. Although they were relatively expensive, Freddie the Frog is priceless.
I never realized how important that little green frog was to me until my mother as gone.
Inside Freddy is a true sense of inheritance. He is emblematic of my mom’s sense of joy. Every time I see him, my heart smiles.
I can hear my mom laughing.
Learning how to belong all over again
When we focus on the legacy our parents have left behind for us, we begin to find to move through the pain of grief and bereavement. Part of our task in the aftermath of a loss is to rediscover a sense of belonging to those who are no longer with us.
The relationship we share with our loved ones is transformed by death, but our deep sense of belonging to them survives. It the space inspired by relationship, belonging, and gratitude, we discover the true legacy of life. Grief and joy are intimate with one another.
The journey to this realization is difficult. How is it possible to feel gratitude when a loved one has died? Where do we find joy in the midst of our grief? Is this all just a confusing play on words?
Grief takes us to the outer reaches of lifewide learning. Here is what I have discovered: Joy cannot exist without grief. They are mutually interdependent. Both of these dynamics originate in love.
When a loved one dies, we have to learn how to belong to the world all over again. For a while, we don’t even want to become visible. We have moved inside in order to pursue the inner spiritual journey of bereavement. Eventually, we start moving out into the world again. But we are no longer the same person.
We do not heal in the sense that we return to who we once were. Healing means finding a new way to embrace life in the aftermath of death. The spiritual dynamic of healing is discovered in the authentic legacy of the life that has been taken away from us.
To discover a person’s true legacy is to learn and grow as a human being. It is an education in the reality of being alive. Death is our teacher, instructor, and mentor. Inside legacy, we will find ourselves, perhaps for the first time.
And this movement directly into the confluence of lifewide learning is precisely how we find a way to belong once again.
- The eighth and final article in this series is On the Loss of My Parents: 8 – The Spirituality of Loss