What does it mean to leave a legacy?
When we are gone, how will we be remembered, and by whom?
Merle Saferstein, the 61st guest on the Make Meaning Podcast, helps people create their life legacies through poignant workshops. These are some of the questions she routinely asks in her “Living and Leaving Your Legacy®” Class.
She helps students with ethical wills, loving legacy letters, journals, memoirs, autobiographies, scrapbooks, and so much more.
“When people think about legacy, they think about the financial piece,” Merle told Lynne Golodner on the Make Meaning Podcast. “For example, how much money they’re going to leave. But this is about passing along hopes and dreams, life lessons, values, and beliefs.”
Helping A Recently Departed Friend Leave A Legacy
Before a dear friend passed away recently, she asked Merle to go through her journals to cull together a legacy for the woman’s young daughter. An avid journal-keeper, Merle spent 26 years helping Holocaust survivors share their stories with students and teachers, through educational programming and speaking engagements when she was director of educational outreach at the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in Dania Beach, Florida.
The woman was too sick to make the call herself, so the message came to Merle through the woman’s brother. Honored, touched, and overcome with gratitude at the request, Merle wrote to her friend after the call to let her know she would accept the request to do this legacy journaling.
“I was the perfect person to do it because I’ve been doing it for myself,” she said on the Make Meaning Podcast. “For my friend, the real responsibility was what did she write that would serve her daughter? I had to use my best judgment in terms of what I thought she would want.”
Merle’s friend battled breast cancer for five years. Unlike others who journal, she knew she might not live to see her daughter grow up. Merle says this friend’s journaling felt different.
“She was doing it very specifically because she knew she wasn’t going to be here,” she says. In fact, one journal was specifically written to her daughter, while the others were written for no reason other than to work through feelings, fears and record observations of daily life.
“She definitely wrote for herself,” Merle says. “It wasn’t until the very end that she realized some of what she wrote she wanted her daughter to have.”
After her friend’s death, family members sent Merle 10 of the woman’s journals, where she recorded poignant and powerful words, sharing fears, hopes and love for her family. Going through them, rediscovering her late friend’s voice through her careful script, was an emotional experience for Merle.
“It took me about two and a half weeks, and I spent all my time going through them,” she says. “I had to put myself in a space of complete concentration, dedication and devotion. It was a spiritual experience.”
Journaling is Sacred
“It’s important to understand how sacred journaling is,” Merle says. One’s words can be a remnant of their soul, left for loved ones to cherish.
“One of the things about doing legacy projects is that when someone is gone, you can pick up something they’ve written and be with them again,” Merle says. “It helps keep that person connected with those still living in a very deep way.”
Even if you have no intention of someone reading your journals one day, Merle believes the very act of journaling can change your life.
Putting pen to paper can “change the way you live because you start looking at your life on a deeper level.” By journaling, you adopt an introspective perspective and allow yourself to examine how you feel about your days and your decisions.
Finding Happiness By Helping Others
In her interview on the Make Meaning Podcast Merle spoke about how, in her mid-70s, she’s “never been happier, never loved my life more. In my courses, we spend a lot of time looking at what our lives are like, are we doing the things that bring us joy?”
“How we live is our legacy,” she says. “Human beings watch each other. We observe. And so we learn that way, and that becomes someone’s legacy.”
A good chunk of Merle’s legacy lies in her work over a quarter-century with Holocaust survivors and Holocaust stories. She curated exhibits, led programs, and listened to the people who survived one of humanity’s most horrific atrocities.
“I was privileged to hear those stories on a daily basis,” Merle says. “People used to say, ‘Isn’t your job depressing?’ But no. I was so grateful. It’s a choice, the legacy that we leave; we choose to have hope, to be positive, or not.”
Merle helped people share stories of survival, of redemption, of hope, of kinship and community. She chose to showcase the humanity in the survival, the connections between people, the ways they clung to fringes of hope while enduring some of the most awful things imaginable.
The Words Matter
After the episode was recorded in 2019, Merle and Lynne started an email correspondence. They’ve been writing long letters to one another ever since. A friendship has bloomed, and they both express gratitude for the gift of getting to know one another.
In the words, there is something precious. Though they have never met, they are inspired by one another, and interested in learning more.
Lynne is drawn to Merle’s zest for life – and her passion for connection. In the interview, Merle said, “As long as I am making a difference in someone’s life, I am happy.”
This is a legacy she leaves every time she leads a course – students from her early decades teaching still come round with accolades and a desire to reconnect. She impacts people simply in her kind words, in her focused attention.
“The most meaningful things I do are those involved with volunteering, being of service to other people,” Merle says. “When things are not going right for me, or when I might be down, the best thing I can do is help someone else.”
“In order to be successful, just leave this world a little bit better because you were here.”