‘We were always at it with each other. The last fight was the nastiest. I said some hurtful things I did not mean. After all, it was a fight. I got the call a few weeks later. He was dead. He died and I never got to tell him I was sorry. He died believing I meant all the mean and hurtful things I said to him‘.
Since starting my work as a story coach to women, this by far has been one of the hardest stories I’ve heard. It was four years since her uncle’s death but the emotions of that last conversation were still real to her. So we did an exercise I love to do – writing an unsent letter.
Writing unsent letters allow us to shed emotional baggage about a situation or person. In Mary’s* case, not only did it allow her to have the last conversation with her uncle it also provided her an opportunity to consider his perspective. We can also write unsent letters to gain emotional healing without upsetting and hurting the other party.
Oftentimes we live our lives carrying pains and hurts for things we cannot change. I have found that writing has helped me lighten the emotional load. When My father died thirteen years ago, I was unable to make his funeral. We were living in different countries and my flight into Trinidad, where he lived and died was delayed for hours. I got there when it was all over. I remember getting to the front of the house where the traditional post-burial get-together at the family home was happening. And I recall the sense of revulsion I experienced when I finally ascended the stairs that led to the front door, only to be greeted by people drinking Hennessy, talking laughing, not looking particularly mournful. They should look mournful. My dad was dead. They should drink their cognac with somber expressions. They should not look like they were enjoying themselves. I felt fury rising. So I did what I felt was the best thing to do. I turned, walked out of my grandmother’s house, went to the place where I was staying, packed my bags and got on the next flight. And I forgot all about him and the experience and not making his funeral. At least, that is the story I told myself.
It’s hard to be whole when we do our best to remain fragmented and compartmentalized. And in regards to my father’s death, I was that way for thirteen years. You see, I didn’t make the funeral and I did not get to say goodbye. So, somewhere, locked away in my mind, he was still living away, and we were still estranged.
I needed a new passport and had to travel to Trinidad for it. I’d been out of the country for a while and needed to show my parent’s birth certificates to confirm eligibility for a passport. He was no longer alive so I had to get a death certificate to present and support the application process. And that is when it became all too real to me. The process of applying for, waiting for and finally reading his death certificate hit me so hard, it was like being repeatedly punched in the stomach. I remember doubling over as if in physical pain when I read it. He was dead. My dad was dead. The first man I loved, the first one to love me, perhaps the only one to love me purely was gone. And I did not get to say goodbye. We never had a chance to say goodbye. I remember leaving the office where I collected the certificate, feeling numb. I don’t remember anything after that but closing my bedroom door and grabbing a pen and my trusty, beloved journal. I wrote him a letter.
The writing was fast, emotional. The page wet with tears. God, I loved that man! My daddy. My. friend. My father. Dead. Gone. Really gone. The letter was twelve pages deep. I recounted the great times we had together. Him combing my hair, walking me to school, his teasing me, the pride he bore for me his firstborn, him letting me get away with all the things ma would not stand. And I remembered things falling apart, too. I remember the arguments and the fights between my parents. I remember watching as their marriage came undone. I poured all that pain, shame, emotions that my then seven-year-old self and now thirty-something-year-old self carried. Everything I felt with him abandoning us went into that tear-stained letter. All the things I suffered because he was not in my life I also included.
I loved him in the letter and then I raged at him. I understood him and then I didn’t. But most importantly I forgave him. And my now mature (I think) thirty-something-year-old self, having survived an abusive marriage that ended in divorce and the trials of life tried to understand his perspective.
I still can’t put the experience into words. But suffice it to say, it was powerful. It was as if through my pen, he spoke to me from the grave. I didn’t agree with it all, but I understood. I told him I loved him, he told me I was forever his kaleidoscope (his pet name for me), we said goodbye for now and then I let him go. And I let go of all the shit that happened because he was not there. I let it go and I held on to the certainties. The love he bore for me. The fact that he felt he did the best he could when faced with the things that challenged him. The fact that he grieved our absence and regretted his choices until his death. I let him and it (the emotional pain) go and in doing so I set myself free.
Going there was tough. It was hard. I felt raw after staring at his death certificate that confirmed to me he was gone. But I slowly came to understand him and in so doing, I relinquished the burden and pain associated with his departure from my life and what it meant to me and felt freeness, peace, and lightness.
You may cry, you may go places you wished to avoid emotionally. But I am convinced that writing an unsent letter can be the first step the healing a relationship or your perspective of it. You may cry, you may shake, you may experience a deluge of emotions. But in the long run, it’s worth going there. Give it a go. And if you need a little hand-holding or someone to stand behind you as you make that step, I’m here for you.
*client name changed to protect her identity.