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7 Key Topics to Discuss with Children Before a Funeral

By | Grief/Loss, Living Well

The funeral, a ritual that has been with us since the beginning of time, is here to help us embrace the life that was lived and support each other as we go forward.  As caring adults, we will serve our children well to introduce them to the value of coming together when someone we love dies.” – Dr. Alan Wolfelt

If your child is attending a funeral for the first time, you may feel a little bit like you’re on pins and needles. While you don’t quite know how they are going to respond, it’s best to prepare them ahead of time. As human beings, we naturally find a measure of comfort in knowing what to expect. This is true for children as well as adults. Just as we prepare our children for the first day of school, for a big move, or for the coming of a new sibling, we must also take the time to prepare them for a funeral.

Your child learns their patterns of behavior from you. The way your child initially views funerals will depend on you and your explanations. By discussing important topics in advance, you can prepare your child and help calm any anxieties.

7 Keys Topics to Discuss

Discuss what they will see

Your child may feel a bit anxious at first, so try to give them as accurate a picture as possible. Look up the funeral location on the internet and show them what the venue looks like. Will there be a casket or urn? Flower sprays? Show your child pictures and explain the purpose of these items.

Also, depending on the beliefs and values of the person who has died, funeral ceremonies may differ. The funeral of a Catholic person will look different than that of a practicing Jew or an agnostic. You may not always be familiar with some aspects of the ceremony, but if you do know what prayers or rituals to expect, discuss their meaning and purpose with your child.

Talk about the emotions they may see in others 

Your child is no stranger to emotion – they feel things every day – but they are probably not used to seeing adults expressing sadness or crying. So, explain to your children that funerals typically elicit emotion. In fact, it’s part of their purpose – to give people an opportunity to publicly mourn (outwardly express) the loss they feel. In the eyes of society, the funeral is an acceptable place to express yourself emotionally. As a result, people display different emotions. Tell your child that they may see some people crying because it’s sad when someone you love dies. They may see other people who don’t look sad, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. We all show our emotions in different ways.

Assure them that their own emotions are normal

Every child will respond differently when confronted with loss. Some are more likely to cry while others seem unfazed. However, it’s important that a child knows that whatever they feel at the funeral is normal. If a child had a close and intimate relationship (as is the case with a parent or sibling) with the person who has died, they may need to cry themselves. Let your child know that this is okay, and it’s good for them to cry if they feel sad. Don’t try to prevent them from expressing their grief. Instead, allow them to feel what they feel. In the long run, it’s better to allow a grieving child time and space to grieve than to make them think their feelings aren’t acceptable or normal.

Explain what death is

Naturally, we want to protect our children from what we think could be harmful. However, having an understanding of death is not harmful; it’s necessary (as much as we might wish it wasn’t). In most cases, a child trusts their parent(s) more than any other adult, which is why this information should come from you. Before having a discussion about death, it’s important to take your child’s maturity level into account. Consider how they’ve responded to the death of a pet or an insect or how they respond to stressful situations.

In general, help your child understand the physical aspect of death – the person’s body doesn’t work anymore, and they no longer need it. Depending on your spiritual beliefs, discuss what happens to the person’s soul after death. Be simple, concise, and clear. Don’t be afraid to use the words dead and died. In fact, it’s better not to use euphemisms. For children, euphemisms can be confusing, so tell it like it is in gentle terms.

Explain burial & cremation

While your child may have many questions, the most important thing to emphasize is that because the person is dead, they don’t feel pain. When explaining what a casket is, you can also talk about burial. Again, use simple but clear language. Talk about how a hole is dug in the ground, and then the casket (with the body inside) is placed in the hole. Then, everything is covered again by dirt. Your child may ask why this must be done. In whatever words you think best, explain that after a person dies, we must take care of the body with respect and care.

As for cremation, again, make sure they understand that the person feels no pain. As you discuss urns, you can also discuss cremation, how it works, and that the body becomes cremated remains (ashes) after the process is finished. The words you use should depend on the age and personality of your child.

Prepare them for seeing a dead person

Seeing a dead person for the first time is often difficult. If you and your child are planning to attend an event where the body will be present, let your child know in advance. Talk with your child about how the dead person will look. You could say they will look like they are sleeping but their chest won’t move because they aren’t breathing. If your child expresses a desire to touch the body, let them know that the person may be cold or hard. Above all, don’t force your child to view or touch the body. You must give them a choice. Some children will want to say goodbye or express love through touch in this way. Just remember, forcing a child to do something they aren’t ready for can do more harm than good.

Teach them about funeral etiquette

Every aspect of the funeral will be new to your child, which is why it’s important to discuss funeral etiquette. By doing this, you will also alleviate any fears they may have and help them feel more comfortable. Discuss why we typically wear dark clothing – to symbolize our grief and sadness. Make it clear that they must be respectful in their behavior during any services they attend. You know your child’s behavior tendencies – specifically call attention to what they should not do.

Keep in mind, children are children, and there will likely be a few mishaps, especially if they are under preschool age. If their behavior is distracting to others or begins to disrupt the people around them, you may have to remove them from the service for a quick break. Explain that we need to be considerate of others and that this is a very important time for many people who loved the person who died. You may also offer your child a quiet activity to keep them occupied during the service, such as a coloring book.

Answer Their Questions

Now that you’ve worked hard to prepare your child, it’s time to answer their questions. Answer as best you can. Be honest and straightforward. Let your child’s questions and natural curiosity guide the discussion. They aren’t looking for euphemisms – they are looking for information. As they ask questions, they are processing the death and what it means.

Some questions you may hear:

  • Why do people die?
  • When do people die?
  • Is death forever?
  • Where do you go when you die?
  • Can I still call them?
  • What happened to him/her (the person who died)?
  • Did it hurt?
  • Am I going to die?
  • Are you going to die?
  • Why do we put them in the ground (if it’s a burial)?
  • Are you sure it doesn’t hurt (referring to cremation)?
  • What if I want to talk to them?

Ask If They Want to Participate

According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, respected author, educator, and grief counselor, participating in actions after the death of a loved one helps us give expression to our grief. He says, “Mourners often don’t know what to do with their grief…. Funerals are made up of a number of ritualistic physical actions, all of which give mourners a way to literally move through the funeral process (and thus through this difficult time of their grief).”

For children, especially those who have lost someone significant in their lives, you might consider inviting them to light a candle in remembrance at the funeral ceremony. You could purchase two identical stuffed animals, placing one with the person who had died and giving one to the child. Thereafter, if the child wants to feel close to the person who is gone, they can hug the stuffed animal close. You could ask if the child wants to draw a picture to place in the casket. If not a picture, some other item. By inviting children to participate, you validate their grief and show them that they, too, are important.

For more helpful information about children and funerals, take a moment to read Life Lessons Children Can Learn at Funerals.

Simple Tips for Writing Funeral Thank You Notes

By | Grief/Loss, Living Well

At a time of loss, it may be very difficult to find the energy and willpower to write thank you notes. However, doing so is an important way of acknowledging the caring support and kindness of family and friends. In addition to expressing your gratitude, by writing thank you notes you will also have the opportunity to revisit their acts of kindness and find a measure of comfort in knowing that people care about you and your loved one.

Writing thank you notes is not just about rules and etiquette. It’s about sincerity and making genuine connections with people. Keep in mind – an imperfect letter that comes with heartfelt sentiment is better than the most perfectly written note.

Let’s go over a few simple tips to keep the process simple.

Select thank you cards

The thank you cards you select should reflect your own personality. Pick something that appeals to you. That may mean that you select cards with printed verses or quotes on them. You may prefer blank cards where you can fill the space as you please. Or, you may want to order custom cards through an internet service like Snapfish or Tiny Prints. Select something that will make the process simple for you while not sacrificing sentiment.

Decide who should receive one

After a loss, many different people support us in a variety of ways. One way to keep track of who you want to thank later is to keep a running list of names. You can do this with pen and paper or simply create an electronic list on your phone. While many people should receive a thank you card, more than anything, make sure to thank those who offered much-needed practical and emotional support.

Thank people who:

  • Sent or brought flowers
  • Made a memorial donation or helped your family financially (do not mention the amount)
  • Put special effort into doing something special, such as sending you a photo of your loved one or sharing a poignant memory
  • Took part in the funeral service (pallbearers, musicians, readers, clergy, officiants, etc.)
  • Helped in tangible ways like providing food or transportation, babysitting, running errands
  • Wrote a condolence letter

Keep it simple and heartfelt

With funeral thank you cards, no one is expecting a lengthy epistle. So, feel free to keep it short and simple but also personal and heartfelt. One to three sentences is more than enough (unless you want to write more), and it’s perfectly acceptable to write similar phrases on each one. Sometimes, that’s all you have the energy to do.

Best practice is to keep your message sincere and personal. Express your gratitude. Be specific about what you are thanking them for. Don’t worry about the “perfect wording.” Instead, focus on sincerity.

Feel free to include your other family members in the signature. Also, make sure to mention your last name or the full name of your lost loved one. In case you are writing to a person you do not know well, including names will help refresh their memory.

For helpful hints on wording, click here for sample text.

Break up the list

While there’s no need to thank each individual person who attended the funeral or visitation, your list of people to thank may have grown larger than you expected. If that’s the case, you may feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of thank you cards you have to write. Instead of stressing, break your list up into bite-size chunks. Write what you can, then set them aside until you have more time or energy. Give yourself permission to take it slow.  Alternatively, you can ask a family member or close friend to help you.

When to mail them out

In general, you should try to send out funeral thank you notes within two or three weeks of the funeral.

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to meet this deadline, especially if the loss was someone especially loved. If you just aren’t up to writing notes, then wait until you feel better. It’s never too late to send your gratitude to others.

If now is not the time

If you find that you just don’t have the physical or emotional energy to write thank you notes, remember that guests and those who were there to support you do not expect any kind of gratitude. They simply wanted to offer love and support when you needed it most.

At a later time, when you have the energy available, send a little note or gift to those who were particularly supportive. You can start out with, “I’m sorry it took me so long, but I do want to thank you for….” Or, “I apologize for the delay in sending this, but your gift of flowers at Mark’s funeral service was lovely, and I wanted to thank you….” In the end, it won’t matter how much time has passed – they will still be touched by your words of appreciation and gratitude.

Grief & Difficult Relationships

By | Grief/Loss, Living Well

If you’ve had to deal with a difficult relationship with a close friend or family member, you’re not alone. Many of us know the pain associated with tense relationships such as arguments, hurtful comments, and even estrangement in some cases. Did a face just pop into your mind? It could be anyone – a parent, a spouse (or former spouse), a sibling, a child, or even a friend. The person and the circumstances differ, but we can all relate to the stress associated with difficult relationships. Oftentimes, the relationships that hurt us most are the ones that are close to us (e.g. family). Those are the relationships that are supposed to support us during hard times and enrich our lives, but in many cases, they don’t.

So, what happens when that person who brought pain to your life dies? In many cases, grief can be compounded by sadness over what might have been. This article will share a few ideas for coping with grief after the loss of a difficult relationship.

So, what happens when someone who has hurt you dies?

When the relationship was strained, you may have contradictory, negative, or unexpected emotions after the death of someone close to you. In addition, you may not know how to deal with these contradictory emotions. Perhaps you feel relieved but deeply sad or disappointed at the same time. You may feel like this person let you down because they didn’t try harder to mend the relationship. Or maybe you feel guilty for avoiding the person because of a negative experience. Alternatively, you may feel so angry that you convince yourself that you are glad the person is no longer around. This may sound quite harsh, but for some, the relationship was so hurtful or abusive that the person left behind cannot access feelings of compassion or sadness at the loss.

While all grief is hard work, in many ways, dealing with the loss of a difficult relationship can be harder for the survivors to process. This happens for many reasons, but one of the most common is because of the deep pain associated with the relationship. Additionally, the survivor may have held onto hope that the relationship would change for the better, but with death, that hope is lost. Even though the relationship brought deep pain (and possibly anger), most of us still wish things could have been different, but death ends the possibility for change.

Difficult relationships bring up complicated emotions

Some of these examples may resonate with you:

  • Numbness; not knowing if what you’re feeling is actually grief
  • Feelings of relief, which may seem inappropriate and abnormal (though they aren’t)
  • An absence of sadness, though you can see that others are sad
  • Finding it difficult to accept that the person is gone and any hope for reconciliation is gone, too
  • Feelings of grief even though others may think you shouldn’t grieve the loss
  • A lack of closure even though you thought the person’s death would not affect you
  • Feeling guilty that you didn’t try harder to have a better relationship while the person was alive
  • Anger that the person took something precious from you (i.e. a happy childhood, good self-esteem, a healthy, loving relationship)
  • Feeling justified in your anger against the person who has died

This is not a complete list. You may be feeling something entirely different, but please know that whatever you’re feeling, it’s normal. People experience a wide range of emotions when someone dies, whether the relationship was difficult or not: explosive emotions, numbness, anger, shock, disappointment, relief, sadness, to name a few. No matter how you feel, the most important thing is to process through your emotions and move forward. You must work hard to prevent destructive emotions and thoughts from festering inside you, which is far more likely to occur when the person who has died represents a source of pain.

Why you should allow yourself to grieve for people who have hurt you?

Simply put, you need to work through all the feelings of grief for your own well-being. Oftentimes, those who never deal with the pain and wrongdoing done to them end up as hurting, broken, and sometimes angry, people. In some cases, they themselves become the “difficult person” in someone else’s life, and the cycle continues. Those of us who have dealt with a long-term difficult relationship need to realize that there is deep emotional baggage to unpack, which doesn’t end simply because the person who inflicted it is dead. We must still learn how to reconcile with our past and move forward toward the future in a healthy way.

A few tips on moving forward with grief

To unpack all of the conflicting emotions that you are experiencing, take some time to try to name your feelings and then begin to process through them. First of all, give yourself permission to grieve, no matter what that looks like. As you process the loss of this person, here are some thoughts on how to unpack the complex emotions you may be feeling:

1. Process what happened

“Mourners must go backward before they can go forward.” – Dr. Alan Wolfelt, grief counselor, author

It’s important to understand that trauma can come directly from negative experiences (i.e. hurtful words, actions, and abuse) and indirectly from a lack of positive experiences (i.e. affirming words, expressed love and affection, and quality time). So, for example, if most people saw that you had a good father who provided for his family, but he never hugged you or told you he loved you, then you might feel the conflict resulting from indirect trauma. Here are a few ideas to help you process what happened:

  • Acknowledge the pain that you experienced and allow yourself to validate the pain without minimizing what happened.
  • List out all the emotions that you feel, without judgment.
  • Journal about the experience you are going through. Share what you do miss about the person, what you don’t, what you wish the relationship had been like, and what it actually was like.  A journal is a safe place to externalize your emotions, which is necessary to grieve well.
  • Talk about the difficult relationship – the good, the bad, and the ugly – with a safe person such as a spouse, friend, or counselor. Use this time to process what you feel, both relating to the recent death but also relating to previous tensions or trauma. It’s the unsaid stories that can do the most damage, so even if you are angry, put it into words. Don’t hold those painful thoughts and emotions inside.

2. Mourn for what was lost

“For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been’.” -John Greenleaf Whittier, American poet

Mourning is the external expression of internal grief. Expressing grief externally through mourning helps us to move forward in our grief journey. When we lose someone with whom we had a painful, difficult relationship, the process of mourning may be a little different. Here are a few examples of what mourning a difficult relationship may involve:

  • Allow yourself to mourn for what might have been. Grieve for the child that felt lonely, hurt, and alone. Grieve for the hugs and kisses and comforting words that didn’t come. Allow yourself to cry, not necessarily for the person who hurt you, but for the pain you endured.
  • Turn anger at the other person into compassion for yourself. As a wounded person, you are likely angry at the person who hurt you. However, anger will not help you heal. Instead, turn your anger at the other person into compassion for yourself. Tell that hurting child or young person inside you what you wish you had heard from other adults in your life. For example, “You didn’t deserve to be treated that way,” or “You are worthy of love and affection.” When you treat yourself with compassion, you give yourself a gift the other person couldn’t.
  • You can also try writing a letter to the person who has died to tell them everything that was left unsaid. Just because one party is gone doesn’t mean that you can’t still reconcile yourself to the loss. Tell the person exactly how their actions made you feel to get it all out. This is about you and your life, your healing, and your future. There are no longer any feelings to hurt or consequences to fear. Say what needs to be said so you can heal.

3. Choose to forgive

“Hatred is the rabid dog that turns on its owner. Revenge is the raging fire that consumes the arsonist. Bitterness is the trap that snares the hunter.” – Max Lucado

Finally, forgive, even when it feels impossible. Think of forgiveness as something you are doing for you, not for the other person. Release yourself from having to carry the burden of anger and bitterness. Only then can you release the hold they have on your life and emotions. By forgiving, you can find the peace you’ve been searching for. Remember:

  • Forgiveness is for your own well-being
  • The process of forgiveness can take time
  • Forgiveness does not excuse the behavior of the other person
  • Forgiving someone begins as a choice, not a feeling
  • Prayer, guided meditations, or deep breathing can help you focus on releasing feelings of anger and bitterness and receiving feelings of compassion and empathy for yourself and others

Do it for you

There are no perfect relationships. In fact, at some point, even the best of relationships will experience misunderstandings, moments of pain, or a few harsh words. For some, deep down, you really did love the difficult person in your life, and you are sad for the relationship that never was. For others, years of harsh words and painful interactions have encouraged you to build a protective wall around yourself. Even now, you’re not sure how to take it down (or if you even want to). No matter where you fall, at some point, you felt love toward the difficult person in your life or desired love from them. While it is a greater challenge to forgive and grieve a person who brought you pain, once you’ve done it, you will experience a freedom you’ve not known before.

 

Life Lessons Children Can Learn at Funerals

By | Living Well, Meaningful Funerals

Death and funerals are an inescapable part of life. It’s hard to know what to do when our children encounter death for the first time. As much as we would like to protect them from pain and distress, we can’t. But we can teach them how to process death and cope with grief in healthy ways.

Understanding the Purpose of a Funeral

First, it’s always good to start with why we have funerals in the first place. According to respected grief counselor, author, and educator Dr. Alan Wolfelt, the funeral ritual “helps us acknowledge the reality of the death, gives testimony to the life of the deceased, encourages the expression of grief in a way consistent with the culture’s values, provides support to mourners, allows for the embracing of faith and beliefs about life and death, and offers continuity and hope for the living.”

The six needs Dr. Wolfelt outlines above – the 6 needs of mourning – are met through a healing and meaningful funeral ceremony. And similar to adults, children have the same need, right, and privilege to participate in a funeral. In some ways, the structure of the funeral ceremony may be even more important for children because they have not yet learned how to process the deep and sometimes conflicting emotions they may feel.

Life Lessons Children Can Learn at Funerals

Children learn how to participate in funerals.

None of us innately knows what to expect or how to behave at funerals. Instead, we learn by seeing, hearing, and asking questions. Many of us came to understand the dos and don’ts of funerals by attending them and by asking a knowledgeable adult our questions. In order for a child to understand what is appropriate and respectful, to know how to behave in the future, they must learn about funerals and be allowed to see the ceremony in action.

Children learn that death is a natural part of life.

Death is a part of life. Just as a child needs to learn how to deal with disappointment, process explosive emotions, or adapt to social situations, they must also learn how to process death and dying. Children are exposed to death early on. They see dead leaves, bugs, or dead animals. Our children know more about death than we might expect. Giving them an opportunity to learn and understand death in a controlled setting is valuable.

Children learn how to say goodbye.

Two of the important things that happen at funerals are that 1) mourners have the chance to say goodbye and 2) there is a public acknowledgment that the relationship has changed (from one of presence to one of memory). Both are necessary for adults and children. Children need an opportunity to say goodbye, especially with close relationships (as is the case with a parent, sibling, grandparent, best friend, teacher, etc.). As part of saying goodbye, you might consider allowing an age-appropriate, willing child to participate in the ceremony by lighting a candle, reading a short passage, or singing a song.

Children witness the complexity of emotions.

Human beings are complex and messy. We experience many different emotions, and sometimes, we don’t even know why we feel a certain way. Children need to understand early that everyone experiences emotion, and everyone deals with their emotion differently. And ultimately, each child must learn how to process and deal with their own emotions. The funeral gives parents an opportunity to help children process their emotions by answering questions or talking about what happened after the ceremony. Children who were close to the person who died may need to process feelings of anger, abandonment, and fear. Observing others process their emotions through the funeral will give children examples of how to cope with grief in a healthy way.

Children see the value of supporting each other.

The funeral activates a system of support for those who are mourning. Friends and neighbors bring food, offer to watch the kids, or help in whatever ways they can. Condolences and heartfelt thoughts are offered to the bereaved. Children need to see the value of community support and learn how to offer such support in the future. For example, young children may ask why adults around them are crying, and they may practice offering to comfort others and showing support by giving a hug or patting a family member on the back. In some ways, children offer a kind of support without even trying: hope for the future.

Children learn how to honor and respect the lives of others.

If you remember Dr. Wolfelt’s quote, one of the purposes of a funeral is to “give testimony to the life of the deceased.” In other words, to recall our memories and share them with others. By doing this, we honor and respect the life that was lived and begin our grief journey on the right foot. Through the eulogy, the personalization of the ceremony or gathering, and other elements of a meaningful funeral, children learn that we must honor and respect the lives of others.

Children learn to treasure life.

If a funeral is done well, it touches the hearts of those in attendance. In fact, it should teach all of us just how precious life is and remind us how we want to live. Dr. Wolfelt puts it this way, “People who take the time and make the effort to create meaningful funeral arrangements…remember and reconnect with what is most meaningful to them in life. They strengthen bonds with family members and friends. They emerge changed, more authentic and purposeful. The best funerals remind us how we should live.” What an important lesson to learn early in life – to value the life you have and make the most of it.

What if my child isn’t ready?

Whether or not your child attends a funeral is entirely up to you. You know your child best – what they can handle and what they can’t. For infants and toddlers (ages 4 and under), attendance will not necessarily have any great meaning or significance, but for those who are preschool aged or older, it’s best to thoughtfully consider how to proceed. While we don’t want to force children to do something, we also need to teach them how to cope with and handle the difficulties life will throw at them. It’s up to you to decide if they are ready.

If you decide not to take your child to the funeral ceremony, here are some other options:

  1. Check to see if the funeral home has childcare available (this service is sometimes offered).
  2. Hire a babysitter. If you know a number of other parents who plan to attend the funeral, you may be able to hire one or two babysitters to watch a larger number of children.

What if my child is too young to understand what is happening at the funeral?

No matter what his or her age, if your child has lost a close family member, help them find a way to process their emotions as they grow up by giving them what a funeral ceremony provides for an adult. Find ways to acknowledge the death, remember the life, offer comfort and support, help them express their feelings about the loss, and help them create meaning and identity as they develop a relationship with their deceased loved one based on the memories shared by adults in their lives. You might take them to visit the cemetery or tell stories every year on their loved one’s birthday. Throughout the year, incorporate traditions, rituals, crafts, and keepsakes as part of your child’s grieving process.

The important thing to remember is that your child will need to come to terms with a significant loss at every stage of development until adulthood. So, keep bringing back the lessons learned from the funeral year after year. Your consistency over the years will help your child grow up feeling like they know who the person was and who they are as a result, which is the biggest life lesson of all.

How to Live a Meaningful Life

By | Living Well

We all want to make some sort of difference in the world. This desire seems built into the human spirit.

In his landmark book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey asks readers to think through a powerful exercise: visualize your own funeral. Knowing you still have many years left to live and invest into the lives of others, consider for a few moments what you would want your closest loved ones to say about you at the funeral service. What do you want people to remember about you? Think about your friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors. What would you want them to say about the life that you lived?

What Makes Life Meaningful?

Living a meaningful life doesn’t mean living by one certain formula. A meaningful life can take many forms and vary from person to person. Think about the most influential people in your own life. While each person has probably impacted your life in a variety of ways, there are likely certain principles that each one lived by that led them to influence your life for the better.  Take a look at the 6 principles below to help you as you consider what you can do to live your best life from this day forward.

1. Value people and relationships more than things

A hospice nurse’s interviews with palliative care patients have recently revealed the top five things people regret at the end of life. Among the top 5 regrets, #2 was “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard,” the biggest regret that the men in the group expressed. The reason? They missed their children’s youth and the companionship of their spouse. Many of us spend a great deal of time pursuing things other than relationships: a successful career at work, a perfect image in the mirror, or even fame and fortune, but deep down, we know that those things are not what make life meaningful or worth living. All we have to do is look at the lives of celebrities to know that fame and fortune can’t bring true happiness or fulfillment. The drive to succeed can distract us for a time, but “success” cannot really fulfill our deepest need: the desire for meaning, significance, and connection. After all, life is not about what we accumulate; it’s about the relationships we’ve built and the people we love. To live meaningfully, make people and relationships your top priority, before work, before wealth, and before achieving success (however you define it), and you won’t live to regret a single day of your life.

2. Find where you belong

We all want to feel wanted and to belong somewhere. We are born into a place to belong – a family, a tribe. But sometimes, as much as we might like it to be the case, our families don’t or can’t meet our need to belong. And so, we feel out of place. If this is you, don’t lose hope. You can still find people who value you and whom you can value in return. For some, it will be a close-knit family. For others, it will be friends, members of a community, or a faith group. With most, it will be a mixture of both groups. But no matter who your tribe is, find them, love them, spend time with them, and do life with them.

3. Discover your passions and pursue them

The third principle is to find out what you’re passionate about and pursue it. Your unique gifts are part of the answer to the world’s problems. Think about it this way: if you don’t pursue your passion, the world will miss out on something amazing. Basically, you have two choices: you can live your life on purpose, or you can let life happen to you. If you choose to live with purpose, you ensure that the things you value most actually happen. You prioritize your passions and pursue your dreams. And dreams come in all shapes and sizes. Maybe you want to be a teacher, raise happy, healthy children, cook delectable meals for family and friends, start a blog, or write a book. No dream is too small – go for it! And the world will be a better place because of it.

4. Find a way to give of yourself

Our natural tendency is to focus inward, to look at our own issues and problems. But to live meaningfully, we need to step outside of ourselves and focus on others. Volunteering is an excellent way to give of yourself. Plus, there are so many different ways to volunteer – you can find one just right for you. By giving of your time and efforts, you make an impact on those around you, strengthen your connections and your community, learn new skills and teach your own skills to others, and you also improve your health. Volunteering is proven to reduce stress and increase overall well-being. It’s that powerful.

5. Live courageously

Living courageously means that you are living with purpose and intentionality while being true to yourself. You have to be willing to take some risks, even if you think you might fail or face rejection. Thomas Edison, when asked about his failure to make a working light bulb, said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” In other words, if we learn from what we would call our failings, they aren’t failings. They are opportunities for growth and will help us get closer to living the life we want.

Taking risks doesn’t mean you have to go skydiving or hike Mt. Everest, but it does mean that you need to push yourself out of your comfort zone at times. In the interviews with palliative care patients that revealed the the top five things people regret at the end of life, two of the top five regrets were: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me,” and “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.”

Sometimes, it’s easier to “go with the flow” and ignore our own needs, feelings, and desires in favor of doing what others expect us to do. But to live a meaningful life with no regrets, we have to be willing to share our true selves with others. Stepping outside of that comfort zone can be scary. But the rewards of living a meaningful life are definitely worth it. The reality is that when we have the courage to live authentically, we inspire others to do the same.

6. Live with kindness and compassion

Finally, to live a meaningful life, we must practice kindness and compassion. In today’s world, it is becoming increasingly rare to find people who sincerely care about the lives and circumstances of others. To live meaningful lives, we need to be those people, intentionally looking for ways to help others. Even the smallest acts of kindness and compassion can have an impact. Also, according to recent research, compassion helps us connect with others in a meaningful way, which in turn, improves our mental and physical health, speeds up recovery time from illness, and may even lengthen our lifespans. Kindness is good for us and good for others, too.

So, now that you’ve learned about some principles to living a meaningful life, what do you want people to say about you at your funeral? Take a few moments to really think about what changes you can make today to live a more meaningful life. Take it one day at a time. Finding meaning and living intentionally won’t happen in a day. A meaningful life is made up of thousands of small, deliberate choices that, in the end, tell a beautiful tale of a life well-lived.

Building a Legacy

By | Estate Planning, Living Well, Plan Ahead

Making a Difference

We all want to leave our fingerprints on the world. When we reflect on our mortality, we inevitably find ourselves wondering how we want to be remembered and what we want to accomplish before passing away. In such times, we often find that the things that occupy our time are trivial and unsatisfying. Acknowledging the reality that we will die allows us to put things in perspective and to focus our energies on the things that are really important.

When you pass away, how do you want people to remember you? What are you passionate about? Answering these questions will help you to make your life a model for those you leave behind.  Each of us has a unique opportunity to create a legacy that will inspire people. Here are some tips for building a legacy that will make a difference in the lives of others.

Identify the things that are most important to you

Before you start to build your legacy, spend some time in reflection so that you know what direction to take off in. As respected author James Cabell once said, “While it is well enough to leave footprints on the sands of time, it is even more important to make sure that they point in a commendable direction.” Determine your direction. What do you care the most about? What are your strongest beliefs and convictions? You may want to make a list of the values that mean the most to you.

Consider the avenues for communicating these values

Once you have these values laid out, you can begin thinking about how you want to achieve them and communicate them to others. Now’s the time to start planning some personal projects. You may want to write a book about something that is important to you or a letter that contains life lessons that you have discovered. You may decide to get active in community service or donate to charities that you find meaningful. Invest time or money in causes that you really want to support. By taking action and investing in the things that you care about, you inspire others to do the same.

Ask how your decisions could potentially impact others

When considering what projects to invest in, try to envision how your different options could affect people. While it is obviously impossible to predict with absolute certainty how your actions will be interpreted after you are gone, putting some real thought into the end results of your actions is beneficial. On close examination, you may see that some of your projects are more practical and more beneficial than others. Since the activities that you engage in represent an important part of who you are, make sure that you are spending your time in the best possible ways.

Live your legacy in everyday life

In the rush to create an inspiring and exciting legacy, it can be tempting to let ourselves be consumed by big projects. But it’s also important to remember the small things: a kind word, a smile, an opportunity to laugh. Stop periodically to evaluate your intentions. Building a legacy is a great way to inspire others, but don’t let your desire to be remembered turn into an obsession that keeps you from living out your values. People will remember you for the way that you lived your life daily, for the small ways in which you embodied your values and treated others.

Learn from your loved ones

There’s no inspiration like that which comes from the people that you love. If you are trying to live your life as an example for others to follow, you may want some help from those you trust the most. Talk to your family and close friends to get feedback. Your loved ones know you better than anyone, and they can give you some ideas regarding the activities that could contribute to your legacy. If you don’t want to talk openly about your legacy, that’s also fair. But be sure to listen to those around you. They can inspire you without even knowing it. Paying attention to the people who motivate you will remind you of what is important as you work to build a meaningful legacy.

Living Better: Positive Psychology and Health

By | Estate Planning, Living Well, Plan Ahead

Positive Thinking

Want to feel younger and healthier? Being happy may help. Studies suggest that positive thinking can significantly improve physical and mental health. It’s not always easy to view the glass as half full, but with practice and persistence, you can cultivate a state of mind that will make you more appreciative of the good in life and more accepting of the bad.

The Happiness Placebo

What do you think of when you hear the term “placebo effect?” To many people, this term only has a negative connotation. While the word “placebo” may initially conjure up images of hypochondria and controversial medications, the phenomenon of placebo is actually rather useful. Many people have found that they can become happy simply by believing that they can be happy.

By working hard to obtain a mindset of happiness, you put yourself in a better position to face life’s challenges and to potentially live a longer, fuller life.  While there is currently no way to prove causation as opposed to mere correlation, studies suggest that people who feel young may actually live longer, and that optimism may contribute to feeling young. And the obvious role that happiness plays in reducing stress, which has negative health effects, lends credence to this theory.

Acceptance

What does it mean to be happy? Most people don’t find happiness in a stable job, a large paycheck or even the fulfillment of their biggest goals. Instead, the greatest factor that determines happiness is acceptance: the ability to be content with your current situation. Maybe you don’t have as much in retirement savings as you would like. Maybe you never got to work at your dream job. Or you’re experiencing more physical pain than you did when you were younger. While all of these things are genuinely frustrating, they aren’t necessarily problems that happy people are immune to.

Happy people learn to live in the moment and accept the present situation as the only possible one. Statements that begin with “If only…” or “I wish” don’t often emerge from the happy person’s tongue. Learning to accept the negative parts of life is key to obtaining happiness. This mindset is conducive to better health and a more meaningful, enjoyable life.

Gratitude

Acceptance is the ability to deal with the negative events of life. The flip side of acceptance is gratitude, the ability to highlight the positive events. Studies suggest that practicing gratitude can strengthen the brain, improve sleep, and reduce pain. In fact, doing an activity as simple as making a daily list of what you are thankful for could significantly increase your quality of life. People who are appreciative of life’s gifts, whether those gifts be big or small, have a greater chance of being happy.

Choosing Thoughts Wisely

The human brain is selective. It chooses what information to process and what information to shrug off, what is worth thinking about and what is worth letting go of. By employing both acceptance and gratitude, you place a greater influence on the positive experiences than the negative, and cultivate a mindset that can lead to greater health and better quality of life. Learning to master your thoughts and steer clear of negativity will help you to view the world through a healthier lens.

Getting the Most Out of Life

Of course, there are many things that lead to a greater quality of life. We know that eating well, exercising regularly, and avoiding destructive habits are good for our well-being. But if you don’t train your brain to be accepting of your situation and appreciative of what you have, and if you don’t truly believe that you can be happy, then these healthy habits can only do so much to give you a meaningful life. Happiness isn’t an emotion that hits you at random. Rather, it is a state of mind that can be obtained through practice and intentionality. By practicing positive thinking, you allow yourself to get so much more out of life.