Creating “legacies” can be as unique as the individual who is leaving or has left us. Earlier in 2014, I visited with a patient who was dying of renal medullary carcinoma, a rare cancer associated with the sickle cell trait. After being told of his diagnosis, he knew he would die within 3 months and was planning to transition to palliative care. The then-34-year-old became very depressed and felt his life was being cut short, at a time when he was just starting to live. He was referred to me and it was suggested that I do a hand print or thumbprint craft with him to leave for his two young children. Because he was a young African-American man, I held off on the activity. Sometimes, in our culture, fingerprinting may be perceived or related to a negative experience. And not knowing his history, I wanted to speak with him first.
At our initial meeting, he revealed his fascination with tattoos and expressed an interest in getting a new tattoo. He showed me 32 tattoos he already had and asked if I could help design a new one for him. I had learned that he was refusing to see his children, so I suggested that he make a scrapbook of photos of his tattoos for his children. Whether he was going to be cremated or buried, the tattoos are a part of him that they wouldn’t be able to keep. He agreed and allowed me to photograph each one.
During this process, he enthusiastically told me about each tattoo, including tattoos of his children’s names and a tattoo of a representation of Jesus Christ, of whom we talked about things Jesus had done before his early death. I got the prints and scrapbook supplies to him the next day, which happened to be his 35th birthday. Although his children were not present, several other family members were able to participate in helping him put the book together and celebrate his birthday. With his direction, the book was completed. He had placed the tattoo photos in chronological order, wrote short messages about the tattoos and included quotes and scriptures for his children to read. He died two days later.
This is an example of personalizing the memory-making activity. Going that extra step will leave something even more meaningful for a family. Years later, this book will tell his story about things in life that were important to him through one of his favorite pastimes. His family also will have those last shared memories of creating together that they can reflect on during their grieving process.