Let’s Talk Family, Column Entry, “Leaving a Legacy: What Matters Most?”

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Column: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing

Column entry: “Leaving a Legacy: What Matters Most?”

By Jonathan Pettigrew, PhD, Arizona State University; Diane Badzinski, PhD, Colorado Christian University

Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.

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December 2023

Leaving a Legacy: What Matters Most?

“I don’t remember my dad ever saying, like, ‘I love you,’ or, ‘I’m proud of you,’ or, you know, ‘I know you’re going to [do] great things,’ or something like that.”

This heartbreaking sentiment is all too common. The person who shared this was being interviewed as part of the study called “What Do Surviving Children Wish for from A Dying Parent?” Researchers talked to adults who had lost their parents before their thirteenth birthday. They asked about participant’s memories and knowledge of their parents and ways those memories were kept alive. Many shared painful memories and regrets. All shared grief.

But there was also a kernel of hope in the midst of sorrow. Some participants shared how their parents left a legacy through their communication. When parents left possessions, photos, videos, and emails/letters, it helped them remember their parents, assured them that their parents loved them, and reminded them of their parents’ pride in them. When the surviving kin talked about the deceased, it also helped. Stifling tears, one participant shared, “I talk to my grandmother, and she’ll have great stories that I love hearing. Or my aunt, about when she [my mother] first met my father. Or my dad might throw something in (pause) and sometimes it’s hard—but I love hearing it (pause) ‘cause it gives me a better understanding of who she was.” A key takeaway from this study is that both our silence and the messages we leave behind for our loved ones can reverberate from the grave (see footnote). Communication can create a family legacy.

Perhaps you have not thought much about what kind of legacy you want to leave behind, but it is never too early to start. Families pass down wealth and share cultural inheritance with their offspring, but we also leave behind communication and spiritual legacies.

Communication Legacy. There is ample evidence that one generation does indeed shape the world of the next. Through our rituals for connecting, how we deal with conflict and offer forgiveness, the ways we “do life together”—our communication patterns in our families have an impact on those around us. Parents train their kids, influence nieces and nephews, and impact grandkids through interacting directly with them. Indirectly, too, if a child is trained to be assertive and loving, and experiences the blessings of these ways of relating, odds are that the child will train her children to be the same way. In this way parents have indirect influence on their grandchildren and subsequent generations through the ways their children parent. The relational strengths that parents model with each other, friends, acquaintances, and strangers can be passed down and create a starting point for how the next generation will relate to one another.

To reflect on legacy, we encourage you to consider what communication patterns you have inherited – good or bad – from your family. Then consider what kind of communication legacy you want to leave behind. Do you want future generations to say that you were the best listener? That you were an encourager? That you genuinely loved your enemies? That you always showed Christ’s love to everyone you met? Start practicing communicating today in ways you want to be remembered.

Spiritual Legacy. It is important to distinguish that parents also leave a spiritual legacy for their children, their children’s children, and the generations to come. This goes well beyond routines like church attendance or mealtime prayers. These are important, but spiritual blessings and curses transcend generations. Our first-parent’s sin, for example, has passed to each person born through the lineage of Adam. So, too, Christ’s righteousness has passed to all people who are born again (see John 3).

One key to imparting a spiritual legacy is speaking it aloud over your family. This might sound mysterious or daunting, but it does not have to be. The Bible is packed with blessings but here are a few blessings you can read aloud to get started.

Numbers 6: 24–26:

The Lord bless you and keep you;

the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you;

the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.

Deuteronomy 28:6–9:

May God bless you when you come in and when you go out.

May the Lord grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you, even though they come at you from one direction let them flee from you seven ways!

May the Lord send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to.

May he bless you in the land he is giving you.

May the Lord establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, as you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him.

2 Corinthians 9:8–10

May God bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, you have all that you need, and may you abound in every good work. Now may he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food also supply and increase your store of seed and enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.

Ephesians 1:17–19

May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

In whatever circumstances you find yourself this December, we encourage you to pause and consider your legacy—both what has been given to you and what you are leaving behind. Family is at once a source of some of our deepest sorrows and highest joys. And we can be intentional about what we leave behind for those we love. Maybe you should pause to express your love, your hopes, your pride for your children. Or make a video to share with a parent. Perhaps you should send a “communication” gift to someone or leave it under the Christmas tree this year. Or start a New Year tradition of mailing a letter to a loved one. Doing these things will shape your spiritual and communication legacy, impacting future generations.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,

–Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski

**As we go through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holidays, it is normal to feel grief for those we have loved and lost. We can miss the presence of those who regularly shared our holiday celebrations. Holiday rituals can involve parents, grandparents, children, other relatives, or close friends. Their absence often becomes tangible and the loss of connection to them can bring sorrow. It is normal to feel melancholy. As the study shows, it is also helpful to remember—to vocalize your loss and share stories about the deceased with those you love. It can also be helpful to develop new rituals of remembrance, which you can share with others. There is no one-size-fits-all to grief or loss, but sharing with others can support a healing process.

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues from a Christian perspective. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 


Anna C. Muriel, Cynthia W. Moore, Marguerite Beiser, Elyse R. Park, Christopher T. Lim, and Paula Rauch, “What Do Surviving Children Wish for from A Dying Parent?: A Qualitative Exploration,” Death Studies 44, no. 5 (2020): 319–327.

Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski, Family Communication and the Christian Faith: An Introduction and Exploration (Pasco, WA: Integratio Press, 2023).

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