2016-06-30
(UNDATED) One of the things Louise B. Colletti of East Granby, Conn., remembers about her childhood is how every morning her dad would kneel down to pray after he had turned on the hot water for coffee.

Even after she is gone, that gesture of devotion will live on because she has written it down. "I want my daughter to know she comes from a line of spiritual people," Louise said.

The nugget of information is part of something she calls her "spiritual will." Unlike an ordinary will, a spiritual will is a document that passes on wisdom and experience rather than money -- or, as Louise puts it, values rather than valuables.

Louise and her husband Joseph F. ("Joe") Colletti, have been giving workshops on spiritual wills for the past two years.

The Connecticut couple came up with the idea of spiritual wills after discovering the book "Ethical Wills," by Barry K. Baines, in a Vermont bookstore. The ethical will is a Jewish tradition that dates back to ancient times and also emphasizes a legacy of values over material things.

Louise, a family therapist, and Joe, a strategic planning consultant, had teamed up in the past to teach classes on quality improvement. The response to their spiritual will workshops has been "overwhelming," said Louise. "Incredible," said Joe.

Putting together this kind of will is powerful because it validates people's lives, Joe said. Sometimes people start off insisting that they haven't done anything very interesting. But taking stock of their lives helps lead them to important insights.

Because every life is so full of detail, the Collettis have simplified the process by designing a graphic that they call a "map."

It consists of a horizontal line across a page, divided into three or four parts to indicate periods of a person's life. The space above the line is for listing people from that period, below for listing events.

As people make their lists, stories start to tumble out ("I'd forgotten about my Uncle Charlie. He was a big part of my life when I was a kid!") And from those emerges a picture of beliefs and values.

"The map," said Joe, "lets you step back and ask, `From all my life experiences, what have I learned?' `What has my life taught me?"'

Joe said one of his earliest memories, at age 3, was watching his father board a train, leaving the family to fight in Korea. He said this image helped shed light on his relationship to his own children.

The value of family comes up most often in their workshops, the Collettis said. Other values that come up frequently are friendship, integrity, honesty, independence, education.

Joe recalls that at one workshop, a woman at the back of the room raised her hand and called out, "`Save for a rainy day!' It goes from the profoundly spiritual to the pragmatic," he said.

The will should include words of regret, forgiveness and other lessons learned, even if they are as simple as "I regret my alcoholism."

If people don't have confidence in their writing skills, they can use art or audiotapes to pass on their message, said Louise. But she believes in writing things down, because writing lasts. Don't worry about spelling and grammar, she said.

"Like anything that comes from the heart, it does not have to be perfect," Louise said.

Anyone or any place can be designated a recipient of the spiritual will. A woman in one of the Collettis' workshops said she had begun writing a spiritual will when her granddaughter was still in the womb. The child is now 5, and the grandmother is still writing.

Spiritual wills can be given at weddings or birthdays, or can be read at funerals.

"For us, the advantage of sharing the will while the person is still alive is that it will stir up a lot of conversation and inspire comments like `Tell me more about this,"' said Louise.

She gave her spiritual will to her daughter Michelle when the young woman turned 25. And there's no rule that says she can't start another one, she said.

One of the many benefits of a spiritual will is that it can assure people left behind that the writer felt loved. Louise says people worry about it a lot, especially the elderly. "I wonder if my mother knew that I loved her," they say. "I wonder if my sister knew that I loved her."

Here's a chance to put those doubts to rest.

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