Reading: Writing Letters to the Dead

Mind Health

Writing Letters to the Dead

There are no guidelines to tell you how to grieve a dead ex-husband. I chose to write him letters

By Harriet Riley

Every year since 2011, I write a letter to my dead ex-husband. What was once a cry into the void now feels like a comforting conversation.

 Of course, my ex can’t talk back, so that works well too.

Mental health professionals confirm letter writing and journaling are healthy ways to process loss and confront grief, anger, and sadness. For me, these letters do all that and more.

My ex-husband, Taylor, died in a small-plane crash. He was the pilot. His wife Laura was in the passenger seat. They died immediately. In addition to our two daughters, 15 and 18 at the time, they left behind their one- and three-year-old. Those two young children were already a part of my life, but they became more important to us all as we groped our way into a new reality without their parents. They went to live with their mother’s sister and husband in a neighboring state and visited us a couple times a year for a week at a time. My current husband and I became Uncle Greg and Aunt Hat. We spoiled them like grandchildren. 

Following their first visit, about a year later, I wrote to Taylor. I was eager to share with him the unique qualities of his precious younger children. And he was the only person who loved our two daughters like I did.

Dear Taylor,

Yesterday your four-year-old daughter asked me where babies come from. For the millionth time, I groaned inwardly and cursed you for dying. Why am I telling your little girl where babies come from? Shouldn’t you and her mother be doing that? I’m 52 years old, and taking care of your 4-year-old and 2-year-old, as well as our 16-year-old and 19-year-old, and my husband’s 13-year-old. Luckily, it’s only for a week, but unluckily all your children must spend the rest of their lives without you and Laura. I think I’m finally angry. When I see the void your death has left, it pisses me off.

My next letter was a year later when his children and their aunt, uncle, and new baby cousin were with us all at the beach. Taylor was the one I wanted to tell his baby daughter lost her first tooth and came running to me to share the big news. I was there instead of you. How did we get here? You’re gone. Me here.

I told him more about our two daughters in this letter:

Your other baby girl, Hannah, is about to go to college. I can’t even write about it without crying. She has been my companion for 18 years now – bossing me, fixing my hair, arranging my clothes, generally telling me what to do. I don’t know how I’ll make it without her. I’ll miss her so much. But she’s ready. She’s been independent since the day she was born. She is more than ready to launch.  That is probably what makes me so sad. She doesn’t need me. I’ve been needed for so long that it’s tough not to be. She does need you, however….

Speaking of survivors, your oldest child Riley is one. And she has truly launched. She is on her own. She doesn’t call me as much or come home as often. She’ll be 21 in a few weeks. She’ll be old enough to do just about everything but rent a car. She amazes me. Our busy little caterpillar is now a beautiful butterfly. 

The next letter started this way:

Dear Taylor,

We celebrated your 55th birthday last week. You’ve been gone three years now, but I guess we’ll continue honoring you on your birthday forever.  Hannah insisted on sushi and red wine in your memory. Riley, who was still in Oxford, had sushi and red wine also and she watched “Almost Famous” for you. It might become a national holiday soon. You are so revered in our household. I told sweet Greg that there were only two days we needed to focus on you – April 10, your death day, and May 14, your birthday. But actually it’s a lot more days than those – Christmas, the children’s birthdays, any major life event like graduation. I must be aware of the fact that your absence is especially glaring on certain days and there is nothing I can do about it. I just detest how you’ve gained rock star status since your death. It’s what you always wanted – to be a legend in your time, since you were always a legend in your own mind.  

Last year on the tenth anniversary of his death, I wrote:

Dear Taylor,

This weekend it will be ten years since you crashed to the earth and died. I often think how pleased you would be to have had such a dramatic death. Definitely your vibe. You always wanted to parachute into parties and you predicted a fiery death. You got what you wished for.  But it still feels selfish. You left behind four beautiful children and watching them grow up is the greatest joy of my life. Truly. Also, the greatest heartache at times…

Over the years I’ve returned to this epistolary communication time and again. I’ve written Taylor 12 letters so far. Reading back over them, I can see all my emotions — anger, sadness, acceptance even. When I finish each letter, I feel as if Taylor and I have had a conversation. With no guidelines on how a former spouse mourns the death of her ex-husband, these letters have come to be my primary grief outlet.

Author and speaker Dara Kurtz says that when we take the time to write — whether it is journaling or writing a letter to a lost loved one or a letter to our children — we are thinking about how we feel about that person. “Writing helps us tap into our feelings,” says Kurtz. “Maybe feelings that we didn’t even know we had.” 

Kurtz’s latest book, I Am My Mother’s Daughter: Wisdom on Life, Loss, and Love, tells of her struggles after her mother’s death. “I was sitting on the beach and wrote a long letter to my mother about how I needed to give myself permission to let go of the sadness. I put the letter into a bottle filled with water and tossed it into the ocean.” She sobbed the whole time, but the letter writing felt like a release.

An article on the Harvard Health website shares research on how disclosing deep emotions through writing can help us cope with intense feelings of grief, releasing stress and unexpressed emotions. Writing letters to a person who is no longer alive can give you a safe place to freely express feelings.

Therapist Sarah Schurman Eberly, LCSW, says, “When we lose someone, that relationship shifts from one with the living breathing version to our internal representation of that person. We get to choose, somewhat, how we want that newer version of the relationship to be.”    

Eberly, who has a private therapy practice in New Orleans, says that writing to a person we’ve lost is a way of keeping the relationship alive or dynamic. 

“Writing can help maintain a sense of connection in important ways,” Eberly says. 

Writing to my dead ex-husband opened a line of communication that I didn’t even realize I needed. The letter writing is also helping me process a range of feelings with someone who can’t talk back. 

My most recent letter ended, sometimes I just drink a toast to that loving, tender-hearted person that you were at your core. 

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