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CancerLynx - we prowl the net
July 9, 2001

Putting Your Values on Paper: How to Write an Ethical Will
Barry K. Baines, M.D.

Last year I wrote an introductory article for Cancerlynx on the subject of ethical wills-- an age old custom for preserving and passing on your values, beliefs, life lessons, hopes for the future, love, and forgiveness to your family and community. I outlined reasons why people create an ethical will and when people choose to write them. This article will focus on common approaches you can use to get started writing your ethical will.

From my experiences conducting workshops on ethical wills, three basic approaches for writing an ethical will have emerged:
1. Starting with an outline and a list of items to choose from
2.Using specific directed exercises to create content for your ethical will
3. Starting with a blank sheet of paper

Approach #1 Using an outline structure and a list of items to choose from.
This is by far the easiest way to get started and it can build your confidence quickly. You can create a rough draft to work from in less than an hour. If your urgency level is high, you will find this approach ideal. Once you've created a rough draft, you can revise and customize it so that it will be as unique as you are. There are a couple of print and software resources available that utilize this approach. Web links to learn more about these resources are listed at the end of this article.

Approach #2 Using guided writing exercises to help you create content for your ethical will
This approach is ideal if you want to start creating material that you can integrate and shape into your ethical will. You can get some momentum going right away using this approach. Here are a couple of workshop exercises I employ to get participants creating material they can use for their ethical will.

Linking the Generations Exercise
1. Write down the name of a deceased relative or who you may have heard stories or legends about when you were growing up. Perhaps your namesake i.e., the person you were named after. Why did you choose this person?
2. Imagine that you could go back in time and meet that person and talk to them. What questions about them and their lives would you want to ask them about? Ask them how they want to be remembered.
3. Imagine one of your future family or community members doing this same exercise 50 or 100 years from now and choosing you. Reflect on what you've written here.

A Reflective Exercise
In this exercise, complete these phrases with as many items as you wish.
From my grandparents I learned...
From my parents I learned...
From my siblings/spouse/children I learned...
From experience I learned...
I am grateful for...
My most meaningful religious holiday/tradition/memory is...

Approach # 3 Starting with a blank sheet of paper
This is the most open-ended approach. Those of you who keep journals or diaries will resonate with this approach. Write about your thoughts, experiences, and feelings. Over time, review what you've written. Themes will emerge from which you can create a comfortable structure for your ethical will. In addition to your writing you can save items that articulate your feelings, e.g., quotes, cartoons, etc.
Writing an ethical will need not be difficult to do. In preserving your spiritual legacy, it may well be one of the most cherished gifts you can give to your family and community.

I hope this information will provide the spark you need to consider taking on the challenge of writing your ethical will. For those interested in pursuing this idea and learning about resources for the different approached, please visit the only web site devoted exclusively to information on ethical wills.
Barry K. Baines, MD

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