Home > Meditations in Time of Retreat > What would you really like to say to them?

With social distancing, the way we communicate has had to change. Absence has often made the heart grow fonder. What would you really like to say to someone important in your life? Some years ago our friend Jean Harding took up writing letters – real letters – to the people close to her.

Hard times. Has the horrible thought occurred to you that you might lose someone that you are quite fond of? Why not write to them now? Writing a letter could be valuable to you and to them. A few years ago my much older brother, frail, armchair bound, and watching endless television, told me that he kept a special treasure in the little drawer beside him. To my surprise he pulled out a dog-eared letter that I had sent him. I had written to thank him, about 40 years late, for corresponding with me for several years when I was a teenager at boarding school and he was newly married and in North Africa with the Army Air Corp. I remember so clearly the anticipation in the waiting, and my delight in receiving those letters. How lucky I had been! I loved hearing all his news. Had I ever told him what they meant to me? At last I had got round to writing, and clearly that had mattered to him. My letter had been read so often it was almost falling to pieces.

About the same time I had got tired of writing to a bereaved spouse telling them how I had valued the friend or colleague that I had lost. All the little things, the memories, the laughter, the funny stories. Couldn’t I try writing to these friends themselves before they died? But how? Wouldn’t it be odd, or embarrassing, or not something that they would want if I wrote telling them exactly what I thought of them? How would one begin?

The day after I sent my first letter the phone rang. “Are you dying?” my sister asked. I laughed and said that I wasn’t. (I didn’t tell her that I thought that she was.). I had set about telling her my most treasured memories of her, and what I admired most about her. I chose to try writing a letter a day in Lent five years ago. I have continued each year since.

I discovered that I needed to explain why I was writing. Many of us do write a letter of appreciation at the retirement of a important boss. Retirement, yours or theirs, from any joint activity can provide a reason. Why not write to all the friends on the Christmas cards list who send, or get sent, nothing but a card? An excuse can be manufactured: “Your name was mentioned last week…” or ” I saw a green woodpecker/newspaper article and was reminded of you….” Loss of a friend who has moved away provides the easiest beginning with “How are you…” Or ask the same question in 2020 because we are not seeing each other.

Thinking about what to say can be the easy part. Imagine what you would write about them if it was a bereavement letter. Would you say how much you had valued them, and how grateful you were for what they had taught you? Would you recall the time that you had spent as colleagues, and the the fun you had had? Would you tell them your favourite memories and what you appreciated most in them?

At the beginning writing felt difficult. I knew no one else who wrote letters like this. Was I alone in finding that the people that I was closest to were the hardest to write to? It also felt like a risk.What would they think of me? Would they be embarrassed? Would I be embarrassed when I next saw them? What would happen? Usually nothing happened. A few people wrote “Thank you. I don’t know what to say.” One or two people wrote back in the same vein. A letter from my eldest son is now one of my treasures.

Do not expect an answer. Somehow that starting point is important. An essential is to write from the heart. Mean every word that you write. It can be very short. Email can work these days, but whatever the vehicle it is best to keep a list of who has been written to and when. Writing the identical thing to someone twice is not a good thing.

Does this mean that writing has no effect? I think not. Letters can be written at any time of year and writing from the heart is a skill that can be learned. If one of your friends later dies, it is a huge relief to have written to them. It would be impossible to measure, but the relationship changes when you have written to someone. They are more likely to be completely open, honest, and relaxed in communications with you. I have never yet regretted writing a letter. I do regret that there are letters that I haven’t yet written.

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