The Story You Need to Tell Family

The Gift of Legacy Journaling and Writing by Merle Saferstein

My day began as they all do—sitting in my favorite spot journaling. That morning as I wrote, I had no idea that something poignant was about to impact my life.

Hours later, I received a call from my friend Sara’s brother Bill in Wisconsin. I first met Sara when she was 40 years old and joined my legacy class at a cancer center.

When Sara became pregnant at 38, she found a lump in her breast, but her obstetrician dismissed her concerns and repeatedly told her it was nothing to worry about. Fast forward three months after giving birth, Sara had excruciating back pain. After undergoing tests, the orthopedic surgeon determined it was metastatic breast cancer that had spread to her spine.

Sara came to the class hoping she would learn something to help her leave a legacy for her daughter were she to lose her battle with cancer.  I suggested she keep a journal and make a video for her child. Of course, we hoped she would live, but her cancer continued to spread.

Three years had passed on that morning when Bill called and said, “Sara wanted me to ask you if you would be willing to read through her journals and find excerpts that you could put together for her daughter to read someday.” I was deeply moved by the request. How was it possible that Sara was entrusting me with her journals—her most private possessions? Without giving it any thought, I immediately said, “Absolutely!”


Sara was actively dying then, but I wrote and told her I would treat her journals as if they were my own and would respectfully choose what to share with her daughter. She sent me back a smile and a heart emoji. Sara died three days later.

When her box of journals arrived, I didn’t open it for a week. I kept looking at it and preparing myself for what I knew would be an emotional, intense journey. I understood that this experience was a huge responsibility and a truly sacred one.

For fourteen years, I had gone through my 359 journals and had taken excerpts from them which I eventually put into two books entitled Living and Leaving My Legacy, Vols. l and ll. Throughout that time, I felt as if I was riding a roller coaster through my emotions, life experiences, and inner journey. But what I was about to embark on was beyond anything I could imagine. I knew Sara wrote her journals for her eyes only, and yet, I would soon be living with her heartfelt words and thoughts.

I holed up for about three weeks, talking to almost no one and immersing myself in Sara’s ten journals. What I found was extraordinary—her strong will to fight cancer and live to watch her child grow up and her letters to God displaying her tremendous faith.

In the end, the excerpts I took from Sara’s journals filled 80 pages, which I had bound into a book—the cover was one from her journals.  When I sent it to Sara’s brother, I asked him to save it until his niece was a young adult. I knew her mother’s words would have tremendous meaning once she was mature enough to absorb and treasure them.

Unlike the journaling we do for ourselves, legacy journaling is written for the benefit of others. When my two granddaughters were born, I began journals for them. They are filled with my spiritual values, life lessons, messages from the heart, reflections, anecdotes about them, and more.


Legacy journaling gives the beneficiary insight into someone else’s thoughts and feelings. It serves as a first-person account of one’s journey and contains a peek into one’s soul and life. It is possible that a journal we write for ourselves might eventually morph into a legacy journal for someone else, as did Sara’s and my own.

One doesn’t have to do legacy writing solely from a journal. We can commemorate occasions such as graduations, birthdays, weddings, religious rites of passage, and other special days with a legacy love letter containing sentiments, memories, stories, and wishes. Legacy love letters can be written to anyone. After all, we leave our legacy in the lives of people we touch in many areas, including family, friends, the workplace, community, and beyond.

Susan, a student in my legacy class, wrote letters to her nine grandchildren. She started with the oldest, who was getting married, and gave him and his future bride the letter the day before their wedding. Susan filled the letter with wonderful memories of her grandson growing up and shared life lessons and thoughts on marriage. She read it to them the day before the wedding, and after their honeymoon, they called Susan and told her of all the gifts they received, hers was by far the most precious.

When my great-niece Halle was about to turn thirteen and before her bat mitzvah, I wrote to her four great-grandmothers, two grandmothers, and mother and asked them to share words of wisdom for Halle. As a gift, I compiled all their responses into a legacy love letter that contained thoughts from her family’s female lineage. Years later when I was visiting Halle and her family, I noticed the letter was hanging on her bulletin board.

Another wonderful way to leave a legacy through writing is to create an ethical will, which is a spiritual document that contains one’s life lessons, values and beliefs, and hopes and dreams. While many people find it meaningful to write when facing mortality, I believe it is all the better to do when one is healthy and able to write without the urgency and pressure of illness. With the expectation of many good years ahead, it helps us to examine our lives and what matters to us. It often provides a road map for how we want to live as we move forward.

What I have learned in my years as a legacy educator is that, above all else, any legacy writing is a gift to the person who writes it as well as a gift to those fortunate enough to receive it.