In grief (and in life), if you can no longer talk to someone you love, people will often advise you to write them a letter. Write a letter with the things you wish you'd told them. Or maybe an apology, if you need to apologize. Write them a letter filling them in on what they've missed. The list goes on. As a mental health professional who has spent her career in grief and lived through her share of loss, I can say there is absolutely a place for writing letters like this. Many people find them helpful, some people even make them an annual tradition or a regular part of their journaling practice.
But today I want to talk about another letter-writing practice in grief. It's one that seems to be less common but that can be just as helpful (and sometimes even more helpful) - writing yourself a letter from them. I know this can sound a little strange at first. Obviously if they've died or are no longer in your life, it might sound a bit woo-woo to write yourself an imaginal letter 'from' them. But stay with me here - there are many reasons in grief that this can be incredibly helpful. It's a tried and true practice for many grievers.
When and Why Write a Letter to Yourself?
There is no single time or moment you might do this. In fact, if you’re someone who has been writing letters to your loved one, a place you might start is in writing yourself a response ‘from’ them. But if can be especially useful in moments when you’re deeply yearning for their perspective. For example, if you're looking for a new home after your spouse’s death, struggling with leaving your shared home behind. You might long in that moment to be able to talk it over with your spouse more than anyone else. But of course their absence is the very reason this moment is here and so difficult.
This can be an ideal time to create space for yourself, grab a notebook or your journal, and begin writing the letter you think they would write to you right now, if they knew the whole situation and how you were feeling. When doing this, it can be important to take a pause to reflect and think about them for a moment before getting started. Maybe you want to picture them in your mind or sit somewhere that you feel close to them. But once you get going, don't stop to overthink. Write what comes first and most naturally to you as you imagine the words they might share.
You Knew Them Best
Or, if not best, you knew them incredibly well. That's why this loss is so huge, why their voice is such an absence. You've probably heard someone say that the voice of their 'inner critic' or their 'inner cheerleader' is the voice of a parent, a best friend, or a partner. You may feel that yourself. There may be moments when you're just going about your day and you see something and you can practically hear the voice of someone you care about responding to it or 'talking' to you. We are deeply relational beings, born to have attachment and connection to others. Our ability to 'hear' others is a product of our amazing attachment system.
But we often don't take the time to tap into these incredible imprints consciously and deliberately. They pop up when you encounter something that triggers them, sure. But we don't always create the space to remind ourselves how well we knew them and, by extension, how well we can often imagine what their words, responses, and reactions to things would have been.
Imagining is Not The Same
Obviously. Imagining what they would say, hearing their voice in your head or coming from your pen, doesn't replace hearing their actual voice. But -- it's not nothing, either. Writing letters like this can be a reminder that we've lost so much, but there are things we've retained. Some piece of them and their perspective, their way of seeing the world and seeing us, is in our memory and our consciousness. We brush up against it and unintentionally tap into it sometimes. And in writing a letter or ourselves (or even just a little note!) we can try to more consciously tap into that connection.
Where To Start
If this idea resonates with you, there is no one way to start. As mentioned above, if you've written letters to them in the past, you might start with writing a reply. Some people tell us that, for special occasions - weddings, retirements, births - they've created a practice of going to the store and picking the card they think their loved one would have bought them, then sitting down and writing a note or message that they think their loved one would have written.
Some other times it can be helpful is when you are seeking advice - on a big decision or facing a difficult obstacle. Creating the time and space to connect with their memory and really try to 'listen' for the ways you're still connected to how the saw the world and the types of support and advice they offered can be hugely helpful.
Writing letters can also be useful when you're struggling with emotions around how you move forward in the world without them. Perhaps there is some guilt or regret their you're stuck on from their death (or before). Perhaps it is inner conflict about parting with some of their belongings or starting to date again. These can be ideal moments to sit down, take a deep breath and picture them in your mind, listen for them in your memory, and put pen to paper writing what you think they might write to you.
Moving into a New Year or a New Chapter of Life
We happen to be writing this just into a new year, with all those resolutions on the brain. Moving into the new year in grief is complicated, which we've talked about many times. It can feel like you're leaving you're loved one further behind (you're not. I promise). But that doesn't change it feeling hard to consider moving into a new year, setting goals, and thinking forward into a future without them.
Any 'new chapter' can be a moment to connect with the words you imagine they would share. Write the letter they would write if they could, knowing you are moving into a new chapter of life without them here physically. Not only can the words that come out in your imaginal letter be helpful, but the very act itself can be a reminder that you aren't 'moving on' without them, you are moving forward with them still a part of you.
(We'll be talking more about grieving in the new year on our free webinar on January 17, 2022 - sign up here if you'd like to join us!)
Ever written a letter to yourself from your loved one? Thinking about writing letters now? Love the idea? Hate this idea? Leave a comment.
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