IL Estate Planning Blog

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Legacy Video: Last Gift from a Terminally Ill Loved One

Taken from The Wall Street Journal - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The day Michelle Wallace gave birth to her fourth child, her doctors discovered she was suffering from an advanced case of endometrial cancer.

Ms. Wallace worried she was going to die before her newborn son, Toby, grew up.  "Her biggest fear was that he was not going to remember her," says Kallie Greenly, Ms. Wallace's adult daughter.  So before she died in 2011 at age 43, Ms. Wallace recorded a 17-minute video for her son, talking about her life, her idea of happiness and how she wanted to be remembered. 

It is a step more terminally ill patients are taking these days, either on their own or with the help of non-profit groups specializing in what are called "legacy videos."  Just So You Know, the group that recorded Ms. Wallace's footage, offers its services free to patients at hospitals and cancer-patient conferences.  Another nonprofit group, Thru My Eyes, records videos free in patients' homes.

"I think there's a sense of relief" for patients who make the videos, says Danielle Gagner, a physician assistant at White Plains Hospital in New York who helps guide breast cancer patients through treatment.  "I think they feel they've left something for their family members, so they're at peace with that."

Diana Nash, a bereavement counselor in New York City, says the videos can give children and other relatives a lasting memento of a loved one.  Still, she says, "Sometimes it's hard for family members to see a video in the first couple of months after a person has died, because it's just too soon.  They're still in shock, they're still numb."  Legacy videos also can sometimes contain painful messages, overbearing advice or wishes that the children don't feel they can carry out.

Research has shown that improvements in mental health and general well-being can result when people have the chance to tell their stories.  In numerous studies, subjects who completed a daily writing exercise reported feeling more positive and less anxious, sleeping better and visiting the doctor less often, according to James Pennebaker, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas, Austin.  There has been less research on the effects of videotaped expression he says. 

Ms. Wallace decided to make her video on the spur of the moment, after coming upon a Just So You Know display at a conference for cancer patients in 2010, says Ms. Greenly, 25, of Refugio, Texas, who appears with her mother in the video.

Robin Weinberg, who founded Just So You Know in 2008, gave the two women a list of suggested discussion topics and left them alone in the taping room at the conference.

In the video, a teary-eyed Ms. Greenly asks her mother about happiness, her faults and strengths, her heroes and even her favorite curse word.  Asked what she would like people to remember her for, Ms. Wallace tears up, too.  "How much I love my family," she says.  "I know if I die before Toby is old enough to remember me, that's the one thing I would want everybody to share, is just how much I love my family".

Ms. Wallace died seven months later, when Toby was 2.  She never watched the video but was relieved to have made it and put it in a keepsake box for Toby, her daughter says.  Toby, now 5, recently watched the video, according to his father, Glen Bullock.

He says Toby recognized his mother but isn't sure what other impact it had on him, as Toby is still young.  "He was just like, that's my mom!" says Ms. Greenly.  "I know that as he gets older it'll be more important to him, more special."

Just So You Know, based in Westport, Conn., and Thru My Eyes, in Scarsdale, N.Y., operate mainly in the Northeast but have helped people make legacy videos elsewhere in the country.


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