What Will We Leave Behind?

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How much of you do the people closest to you really know? What do they understand of the person that you are, as something distinct from the things you do? And when the time comes, inevitably, will your story die with you, or will it remain with your friends, your spouse, your children?

Being known — really known — by the people who matter most to us forms a core part of our everyday relationships. When someone feels that those closest to them don’t really know them well, it not only negatively impacts their experience of the quality of those relationships, it can also compromise their own sense of wellbeing and belonging. But being known is also a big part of what we leave behind when we die, and many extra challenges can arise for grieving loved ones when they realise how little they knew of the person they lost.

When reflecting on the inevitability of their own death, many people’s thoughts turn first to more traditional aspects of ‘legacy’ and leaving behind material possessions or visible signs of achievement. Some might aim to leave an inheritance for children or a spouse, or perhaps for charity; those with unusual wealth might even endow a foundation to carry on their work or their name after their death. But these kinds of things say more about the aspect of ourselves that is what we do, as distinct from the aspect that is who we are. While it may be tempting to think that we can infer all we need to know about who someone is by looking through the lens of what they do, in reality only rarely do we actually have enough information about what someone does to understand more than superficially who they are as a person. (Just ask any disappointed ex-fan of one of the myriad recently discredited actors, actresses, or other public figures whose actions in their private lives, once disclosed, have revealed them to be someone other than who we all thought.) We might leave behind plenty of indicators of the things we’ve done without leaving behind much at all of who we are.

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In everyday life, probably some people are naturally talented at making themselves known, for example automatically talking about themselves in such a way that who they are becomes easily understood by those in close relationships with them, such as a spouse, children, friends, and so on. For others, by contrast, this process doesn’t come naturally at all. And for others still, the changing circumstances of life, such as becoming a parent and making a child the centre of their universe, taking on a new role at work, or even being struck with a major illness, mean that being really known by others happens much less automatically than it once might have.

For those in the latter two categories, sometimes it happens that others notice and reach out to understand more. Children, for example, may want to know details about their parents or their grandparents; sometimes it even comes up as a school assignment to interview a family member about their life. Many adults have made a point of sitting down with an ageing parent, jotting notes or making audio recordings. Many more have intended to do so but never did, with other circumstances getting in the way until it was too late.

Probably more often than not, however, others don’t notice — and, in fact, we might not even notice ourselves. Sure, we might get a sense of distance from those who matter to us, but we chalk it up to being busy. Or we reminisce about times when we somehow felt closer to others, but without necessarily being able to put our finger on the sense that we no longer feel as known by them. Instead, we may just wind up feeling that little bit more distant, that little bit more alone, that little bit less settled.

This can happen to anyone, even to those who would ordinarily be talented at making themselves known.

When it does, I believe it’s essential to remind ourselves that who we are matters — over and above the things we do now or the things we did in the past. It matters to ourselves, it matters to those closest to us, and it will matter to those left behind after we die. In a sense, it matters even to the rest of the social fabric around us: by being an example of a person who is, a person who is known for who they are, we make a fundamental statement about personhood and the value of the person.

This is not in any way to take away from the value or importance of actions; rather, it is to attribute something extra to the underlying person. A collection of events or achievements from a life doesn’t begin to tell who we are until it is woven together with some kind of narrative, some story of what those events meant to us, the role they played in our lives and in our development. That narrative, as a reflection of who we are, is a central way of being known in our relationships and of offering ourselves to others.

It is also the primary means by which our loved ones will carry on a relationship with us long after we have died, far more so than any traditional ‘legacy’ of money or possessions or even the most well-heeled foundation.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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