“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
A friend recently laughed at my newly painted toenails. On each foot, in descending order from big toe to pinky, I’m sporting bright orange, teal blue, poppy red, shocking pink, and deep purple. If you can picture it, perhaps you are smiling.
This experience led me to think about how I want to be remembered. I want people to remember that I made them laugh. I know people remember my favorite joke (the one about the Doberman and the Chihuahua). I know they think of me when they use my recipes for cilantro salsa or eggplant puttanesca. And I hope to be remembered for my generosity, love of beauty, loyalty, sense of humor, and curiosity.
I started asking my close friends three questions: How do you want to be remembered? What do you want to be remembered for? What do you think others would say about you if asked?
My friends’ responses frequently surprised me. Several people became defensive, declaring they didn’t care what others thought about them—they couldn’t control that in any case—while others explained how they have dealt with other people’s judgments over the course of their lives.
When I first became a hospice volunteer, I helped a widowed client throw a 40th birthday party for his wife—six months after she died. We invited people who had come to her funeral, requesting stories and memories. It was a great event. We laughed and cried as we honored the unique ways she had touched each person. A mutual friend called me later, thanking me for the opportunity to share and hear the stories. She added, “I don’t want to wait until somebody I love dies to tell them what I love and value about them. I’m going to start telling the people in my life right now.”
That was 30 years ago. Now it has become more common to have life celebrations for people who are facing death while they are still able to interact and be present. They receive the blessings and hear the memories and know, without a doubt, how much their life mattered to those gathered.
We don’t need to be at the end of our lives to receive information about who we have been to those whose lives we have touched. We don’t need the people we care about to be declining before we share the stories and memories we have harvested from having them in our lives.
It takes courage to ask what others appreciate and remember about us. And it takes kindness and compassion to let others know their value in our lives.
What better time than now to start asking these questions of ourselves and others?
Rebecca Crichton is executive director of Northwest Center for Creative Aging and presents programs on that topic in the Seattle area. She worked at Boeing for 21 years as a writer, curriculum designer, and leadership development coach. She has master’s degrees in child development and organizational development, and she is a certified coach.