In October 2013, I used a work trip to Chicago as an excuse to bring my 9-month-old son to visit his grandparents. My mother opened the door of my parents’ high-rise condo with a strange look on her face. She welcomed us as brightly as she could, but I knew something was wrong. My parents had recently returned from what should have been an invigorating trip to Europe, but my mom didn’t look happy or refreshed at all.

“What’s going on?” I asked. 

“We’ll talk about it later,” she said. 

“Mom, what’s wrong?” I pleaded.

“It’s not good,” I remember her saying.

While vacationing in Europe, my mother had suffered from persistent and intense stomachaches, which had made travel unpleasant and uncomfortable. When she got back to the States, her doctor sent her off for testing and ultimately found some suspicious spots on her pancreas and liver. Eventually, the worst was confirmed: It was metastatic pancreatic cancer. 

I don’t quite remember how I spent the rest of the weekend with my parents and my son. I know I had some work interviews to do (I was a producer on a national education podcast), and I remember my cheerful, newly-crawling baby brought some levity to an otherwise dark and confusing time. But mostly I remember feeling as if I was trying to keep my bearings in a stormy sea while the rest of the world was steady on solid ground. 

In November, my family of origin, our spouses and kids gathered together in Chicago for what we feared (but nobody said aloud) would be my mom’s last Thanksgiving. As Jews, the holiday was kind of like our Christmas. We relished in cooking and eating traditional American foods like my sister’s spiced cranberry sauce, my brother’s smoked and grilled turkey, and an extremely buttery candied sweet potato casserole. But that night, nobody felt much like eating. We had arranged a professional photographer to take family portraits (a rare occurrence — we’re not “portrait” people) because we feared (but again, nobody said aloud) it would be the last time we were together and healthy. When I look back at the photos today, we all look young and vibrant, but behind our smiles, you can tell we are all scared out of our minds. 

The hard thing about bravely smiling when you know your world is about to come crashing down, is that what you really want to do is cry and scream and rage. My mom was 66 and in the prime of her life. She exercised every day. She was in book clubs, and bridge clubs, and played tennis and golf and traveled. She was nowhere near ready to slow down. And she certainly wasn’t ready to accept that this kind of cancer would be nearly impossible to survive.

The thing is, I wanted to go deep with her. I wanted to know what she believed about what happened after you died. I wanted to know what she wanted me to learn from her life. I wanted her to give me a road map to raising my child. I wanted her to tell me how to have a long marriage. How to keep good friends for as long as she had. I wanted to know why she was so hard on herself at times, yet so confident and assertive at others. And what she wished she had done differently when she was raising kids.

But my mom wasn’t ready to dispense wisdom. She didn’t want to accept that she was going to die. I don’t begrudge her that. It was what she needed to do to keep herself from giving up completely. But I had this need to connect with her on a deeper level. I wanted to have the conversations you have with people who know they are dying.

I consulted with a rabbi where I live in St. Paul, and he gave me the idea of helping my mom write an “ethical will,” also called a “legacy letter.” While a legal will passes on physical assets, an “ethical will” passes on intangible values. The idea is that she could write a letter that described the values and life lessons she wanted to pass on to her family and loved ones. I brought up the idea with Mom. It was met with ambivalence. 

I tried again a few months later. She shrugged it off. 

The last week of her life, I had the privilege of staying with my parents and helping care for my mother in ways I never imagined I would. I sat with my mom the last night of her life, when she finally accepted that she should go into hospice. I brought her a computer and asked her to write a letter. She started one and wrote a few paragraphs, intending to come back to it the following day. But the following day, a rainy, hot, August afternoon, she died at home, with her family nearby. 

In the years since my mom died, I’ve had three more children, and I’ve written my own ethical will to my kids and my husband. I’m only 42, but I want to have a say in how my family remembers me, and I want them to have an idea of the lessons I hope I can pass along to them from my own life and from those who came before me. Sadly, my dad died in 2021 without writing his own legacy letter. These experiences have inspired me to start my own business helping individuals write their own legacy stories. If you are contemplating writing down or recording messages of love, hope, learning, forgiveness, regret, or blessings for your loved ones, there is no time like the present. I can help you get there if you don’t know where to start.

Suzanne Pekow is a former public radio journalist who teaches the art of legacy writing. She is an Ethical Will/Legacy Letter Certified LegacyNavigator™ (Trained and Certified by Celebrations of Life Services). You can find her online at her website

The material contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not intended to create or constitute an attorney-client relationship between Schromen Law, LLC and the reader.  The views expressed in this article are not a statement of support or endorsement by Schromen Law, LLC.  The information contained herein is not offered as legal or medical advice and should not be construed as legal or medical advice.


    By submitting this form, you consent to receive SMS messages from Schromen Law, LLC. These SMS messages may include account updates, promotional offers, feedback surveys, and service-related notifications.

    Write a comment:


    Your email address will not be published.

    © 2023 Schromen Law, LLC | Privacy Policy | Legal Disclaimer