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Have You Lost a Loved One? How to Honor Their Legacy

Here are ways to keep the memories alive.

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photo collage of open book with image of man
Paul Spella
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Commemorating the life of a deceased loved one honors a legacy that lives on in us and the world around us. As a means of healing our grief over loss, we turn to the positive ways we can celebrate and remember grandparents, parents, siblings, friends and spouses. In my own case, it’s a former spouse who, despite divorce, remained a cherished presence in my life until the day he died.

I married Ben Martin, a Time Life photographer, over 50 years ago. After 20 years, we’d grown apart and exchanged marriage for close friendship in a divorce so amicable that we eschewed warring attorneys (and their fees), divided our stuff and parted without the lingering after bite of alimony and recrimination. The friendship turned out to be a lasting success.

When Ben passed away in 2017, I took over managing his photographic archive and donated the collection to the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas, Austin, which houses the lifework of many of Ben’s Time Life colleagues.

The donation itself was a means of honoring Ben’s legacy. However, there was one part of his collection that deserved to be highlighted: the photographs he took of famed mime artist Marcel Marceau for a Life magazine pictorial that eventually became a book, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime (1978).

I reached out to Anne Sicco, the widow of Marcel Marceau, their two daughters and his two sons. The family shared my sentiments about the stunning photographs of the artist offstage, in rehearsal and onstage performing his signature role of Bip.

To celebrate the centenary of the mime artist’s birth, March 22, 2023, Cumberland Press will reissue Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, with an introduction by Anne Sicco. It’s a fitting tribute, honoring the legacies of both men and their artistic collaboration.

I learned that Camille, the mime’s older daughter and a filmmaker, was engaged in her own legacy project. She commemorated Marcel’s father, a Polish Jew who was killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau, by filming a documentary, Au Bout du Quai (At the End of the Track). At the site of the railway line leading to the Nazi concentration camp, Camille read a personal letter written by her grandfather, Charles Mangel, and then left the letter tucked into the end of the railroad track at the Holocaust Memorial as a lasting remembrance.

Camille’s story and working with the Marceau family on the photographic book inspired me to consider the many ways, both large and small, that honor those significant in our lives. Friends and acquaintances shared many touching stories of creating a legacy that sustains the spirit and life of someone they loved and lost. Planting a tree, dedicating a bench in a park or a seat in a theater is a means of celebrating what loved ones valued in their lives. I walk daily through a wildlife sanctuary that’s a memorial to a dedicated birder in our community. A neighbor planted two rose of Sharon trees on either side of a bench on a stretch of the Hudson River shoreline where his wife loved to walk with her dogs.

Finishing a project that a loved one started is also a therapeutic means of coming to terms with grief. My hiking pal, David, heartbroken by the swift death of his wife from pancreatic cancer, wanted to fulfill her dream of publishing a book of her poetry. As a keepsake for friends and family attending her memorial service, where selections of her poetry were read aloud, David published a limited edition of her poetry, illustrated with her exquisite line drawings. Bridget Hedison, an amazing cook, always talked about doing her own cookbook. When she died of breast cancer, her daughters printed remembrance booklets with Bridget’s favorite recipes and a photograph of their mother in her kitchen doing what she loved best.

Honoring a loved one by creating a fundraising event is a positive way to deal with grief. Sherwin Katz lost his wife to progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare neurological disease. To both honor his wife and raise awareness of PSP, Sherwin became one of the sponsors of Sundaes on Sunday, an annual ice cream social that’s a CurePSP fundraiser.

My longtime acting buddy Jim Beaver honored our beloved colleague Ed Asner by joining a star-studded cast (Jean Smart, Seth Rogen, Christina Applegate, Brendan Fraser) for an online table read of It’s a Wonderful Life to support The Ed Asner Family Center.

Sponsoring a scholarship in a loved one’s name creates a lasting legacy for the community and future generations. To honor the memory of his wife, the Associated Press’ first woman foreign editor, Patrick Oster and his son, Alex, provide a scholarship in her name to a journalism student through the Overseas Press Club Foundation, where she served on the board.

Legacy means “passing something on,” and that can take the form of a treasured memento of a loved one, a personal way to keep memory alive. My nephew Tom, an avid skier, cherishes the engraved silver cup passed on to him that my father, a onetime ski jumper, won as a young man in Norway. My cousin Carla cherishes a finely embroidered handkerchief that her grandfather brought home from Paris, after serving in World War I, to give to his sweetheart, her grandmother.

A tribute doesn’t have to be a big thing. After my 93-year-old mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she decided to renew her expiring driver’s license. “I don’t spose I’ll be driving much anymore, but I’d sure like to show ’em I can pass the test.” Mom, who loved to drive and considered a Minnesota blizzard a joyride, aced the road test — and then handed me the keys to her Plymouth and her newly issued driver license. I now have her license framed on my bedside table as an ever-present source of inspiration to live each day to its fullest.

How have you honored a loved one's legacy? Let us know in the comments below.

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