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Writing letters as a form of grieving

The death of a loved one can throw our lives into intense emotional turmoil, causing us to experience a devastating upheaval that is emotionally draining, overwhelming, and confusing. What was once our sense of comfort, stability, and support is no longer. Coming to terms with this circumstance and the grief it brings with it, is difficult, to say the least. Not only must we navigate through emotions not shared, stories unheard, and things left unsaid, many of us will attempt to find closure where there may be none. One way of helping us cope through death is by writing out our grief in the form of letters to the deceased. While it may bring strong intense emotions that at first are hard to handle, if you stick with it, it can have therapeutic benefits by allowing you to share, say, and express your grief through conversation.

In this article, we will take a look at how processing grief through letters can benefit you. We will provide tips on how to actually go about writing a letter and provide you with a sample letter. We will also provide you with prompts for what you can say and ideas on what to include during the writing process. Finally, we will round out with how to participate in the burning ritual for when you feel it is time to truly let go.

How Writing Letters To A Deceased Loved One Helps Deal With Grief

While everyone grieves differently, it is important to remember that grief is not linear, and it can come and go when you least expect it. According to Harvard Health, there is some research into how disclosing deep emotions through writing, can help us cope with intense feelings of grief. This is simply because the act of writing the emotions, feelings, and thoughts out on paper, releases the stress of holding the feelings in.  Writing letters of grief allows you to freely and safely express yourself without judgment and provides you with the ability to explore and reflect on the death without being shackled to your thoughts.

When you choose to write a letter to a deceased loved one, you are provided with the opportunity to sort through any conflicting emotions that you have about the person. You can share thoughts and emotions that you want them to acknowledge, and you can express what you need for closure. Writing may also help you make room for other thoughts, help you develop an understanding, or un-muddle thoughts about death and life. But most importantly, writing helps you preserve the memories you want to keep.

Remember that you can still share.

While you may not be able to physically touch your loved one or see them while you speak with them, choosing to have a conversation out loud or on paper can provide you with comfort. You can still share your jokes, your successes, and your failures with the deceased and foster a sense of connection with them. It can be very easy to get hung up on the fact that they are no longer with you, but it does not mean that you can’t have conversations with them, even if they are one-sided, they are still worth having.


How Do You Write a Grieving Letter to a Loved One That Has Passed Away?

There are no rules on how to write a grief letter to a loved one. The only thing that should be kept in mind is that you do not want to edit yourself as you write, and you do not want to hold back. However, if you are looking for a step by step guide, try the following:

Step 1

Find a quiet place to sit, where you can be comfortable and undisturbed. This is a good way to collect your thoughts and have some reflective time before you begin writing your letter. Also, do so at a time of day or night that brings you comfort.


Step 2

Choose your preferred writing medium. You want something that is going to make it easy to write and not hinder you from allowing your words to flow. If your hand cramps easily, writing with pen and paper may not be the best idea. Options include a smartphone, tablet, writing on the computer, using pen and paper, or writing in a notebook or journal.


Step 3

There is no right or wrong way to express your emotions. Write without judgment. Tell your loved one exactly how you feel and do not worry about whether it is profound or not. If it helps, use a memento like a memorial coin or a photo engraved keychain to help you feel close to them during the process.


Step 4

Take your time. Engage in pure honesty, reflection, and acceptance. Tell your loved one that you are sorry or that you love them, or that you know that they died (happy, satisfied, content, with wit/wisdom).


Step 5

Take time to explore the questions that are running amuck in your head. It's okay to brainstorm the questions and jot them down. Sometimes seeing the questions on paper helps you to decide if they are relevant or meaningful to your letter and what you want to express.


Step 6

Consider using any of the following sentence prompts if you find yourself having a hard time:

  • “Looking back now…”
  • “I want you to know…”
  • “You were an incredible…”
  • “What I miss most about you…”
  • “My best memory of you is…”
  • “Sometimes I think about…”
  • “I am so angry that…”
  • “What I learned from you is…”
  • “When I think about you, I feel…”
  • “You meant the [blank] to me…”

If these sentence prompts are not enough, there are a few avenues below that you can use to find content for your letter.


What Do You Write in Your Letter for the Deceased?

While it can seem daunting, staring at a blank piece of paper or a blank computer screen, there are a few angles that you can take to kick start your letter.

  • You can talk about what type of experiences you have been through or have had since their death. These experiences can be happy ones, like getting married, graduating, or adopting a new pet or they can be solemn ones about your struggles.
  • You can talk about what you have missed about them. This could be the way their hair smelt after a shower, how you miss cooking their favorite foods, or their presence at nighttime. Most commonly, people will miss the laughter of their loved ones or their smile.
  • Talk about anything that you regret. This could be in relation to the deceased loved one or something you regret that is indirectly tied to them. Depending on where you are in the healing process, you could be still be working through anger or shame or you could be at the point where you are able to talk about your life to them.
  • You can talk about what you currently appreciate. Again, this can be directly about them, the loved one, or it can be a general conversation that you have.
  • Talk about what you have learned over the years about yourself since their death. Talk about what you’ve learned about your loved one and perhaps talk about your relationship to them.

Some additional ideas may be:

Write about your love for them. Describe memories that you cherish and stand out that you are grateful to have.

Write about how you have honored their memory. Some individuals like to keep memorial boxes with a few trinkets to help preserve the memory of their loved one.  You may want to add photo engraved jewelry to the box or purchase memorial portraits for your home.

You could even talk about memories that have made you randomly laugh or how a particular song that came on the radio made you think of them.

In all honesty, you should ramble on and talk about whatever crosses your mind. The letter doesn’t have to have a singular purpose or flow to it. It is simply a way for you to get across what you are currently feeling, out from inside you, and into the universe. If you want your letter to have a particular purpose, ask yourself any of the following questions:

  • Was I open and honest about my current feelings and thoughts?
  • Was I able to express my love and appreciation for them?
  • Was I able to resolve any unresolved issues?
  • Do I have any regrets or resentments still bothering me?
  • Have I left anything unsaid?
  • Do I have a better understanding of where I am at right now?

Please remember that the grieving process is not linear, and it may take you several letters to mourn properly. It is unlikely that you will be able to address everything in one letter, regardless of how long that letter ends up being.


Sayings for a Loved One Who Has Passed Away

Sometimes it can help to attribute a quote or saying to your loved one. Some beautiful ones include:

“Those we love don’t go away; they walk beside us every day” - Unknown.

“Those we love can never be more than a thought away, for as long as there’s a memory, they live in our hearts to stay.” – Unknown.

“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal; love leaves a memory no one can steal”. – Irish Headstone.

“We thought of you in love today, but that is nothing new. We thought about you yesterday and days before that too. We think of you in silence, we often speak your name. Now, all we have is memories and your picture in a frame. Your memory is our keepsake, with which we’ll never part. God has you in His keeping, we have you in our hearts.” – Unknown.

“Your life was a blessing, your memory a treasure. You are loved beyond words and missed beyond measure” – Renee Wood.

These are just a few of the thousands that are available. If you don’t like any that you have found, try writing a bit of poetry or sayings yourself to see if you can come up with something that is more fitting of your loved one.


A Sample Letter to a Deceased Loved One

While there are no rules on how much you should write or what format your letter should take, generally, you want to address your loved one and write the date down. Of course, like traditional letters, you may want to close it off with your love as to help the writing process come to an end. For those who may not know where to start, here is a letter from Richard Feynman to his wife, who passed away from Tuberculosis at the tender age of 25.

October 17,1946

D’Arline,

I adore you, sweetheart.

I know how much you like to hear that — but I don't only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.

It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you'll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing.

But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector. Can't I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the "idea-woman" and general instigator of all our wild adventures.

When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.

I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don't want to be in my way. I'll bet you are surprised that I don't even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can't help it, darling, nor can I — I don't understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don't want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.

My darling wife, I do adore you.

I love my wife. My wife is dead.

Rich.

PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don't know your new address.


Choosing to Let Go: The Burning Letter Ritual for Release

The burning letter ritual is for individuals who have gone through the process of mourning or grieving and are now ready to let go of any and all intense emotion associated with their deceased loved one. The emphasis of the burning ritual is on letting go of the old, healing emotional wounds, and inviting new and positive energy into our lives.


What should your burning Letter Consist Of?

If you have been writing letters to your loved one for a while now, you can choose to either 1) burn all letters you have written or 2) create a new letter for the ritual. Give yourself plenty of time to write the letter. Do not place any time constraints on yourself and allow yourself to write freely. Include everything that you feel about the person and why you feel this way. Write about the impact that they had your life, good or bad. Finally, write the hard stuff down. If you feel ashamed, stupid, or scared, write about it. In “blurting” it all out, you give yourself permission to start the healing process.

You will need a fireproof vessel.

This can either be a fireproof bowl that was specifically picked out for the burning ritual and contains sentimental value, or it can be as simple as something that you already have on hand. If you do not have the ability to purchase a fireproof bowl, you can use a fire pit outside or a working fireplace. The key with this is to have a fireproof vessel that allows you some privacy during the burning ritual. Ideally, you want to be able to go outside or sit in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed during the process.

You will need to be comfortable with reading out loud.

The idea behind this is to read the letter out loud as if you were talking directly with your loved one in conversation. Why is this important? Reading out loud allows you to lend emotion to your voice, give energy to your words, and to place your emotions into the area immediately outside of yourself. Please, take your time to read. If you need to stop at any point because the emotion is strong, allow yourself to take the time needed. Cry and laugh, but most importantly, do not rush through. The more energy and emotion you are able to express out loud, the more powerful the ritual will be for you.

Be ready to release your loved one to the universe.

Once you have read your letter out loud, hold it close to you. Take a few moments to think about what you have read and reminisce on your loved one. When ready, hold the letter out and release your loved one by saying something along the lines of, “I release [name of loved one] and their energy from my life. I release with gratitude. I release with love. I release you to the universe and will now begin my journey of healing”.

Choose to tear the letter into pieces or burn it whole.

For some individuals, tearing the letter helps with the release of emotion. Others prefer to watch the letter slowly burn and fade into ash. Consider which action you would prefer to take, prior to the burning ritual. Place your letter (or its pieces) into your fireproof vessel, light it (carefully), and let it burn. Sit quietly and watch the letter burn. At this point in time, try to associate happy memories of your loved one. However, if nothing but tears come, that’s okay.

Consider scattering the ashes somewhere special.

If you are outside, you may choose to scatter the ashes in your yard, bury them, or allow the wind to take them where they please. Or, you can choose to save the ashes in an urn, until you find a place where you want to keep them or scatter them.

Clean out your fireproof bowl.

Take time and care to do this slowly and purposefully. Clean it out until none of the ashes or letter fragments remain.

Fill the void where the negative energy used to be with a mantra or phrase.

If you find that there is a big void, where you were holding all of the grief, consider choosing a word or mantra you want to draw into the void. This could be love, it could be about compassion, light or even joy. You can associate with your loved one, but the key is to choose a positive phrase.

If you find that the loss is too heavy, you may choose to make the burning ritual a traditional ceremony. It could be done on an annual basis or however often is needed to help you deal with any lingering emotions of sadness, grief, or anger.


How Do I Send a Letter To God?

If you would like to physically send a letter to God, there is a postal department in Jerusalem that will accept it. Simply write out your letter and then mail it to “To God, Jerusalem” and it will be forwarded to Israel’s postal service. The letter will then be sent to a unique location in Jerusalem, called the Western Wall. The Western Wall houses handwritten notes of prayer and well wishes from individuals all across the globe.


Conclusion

While writing a letter to your deceased loved one may not hasten the grieving process, it can help you find a sense of stability and aid you in addressing the stress caused by this emotionally upsetting time. The path to healing through letters occurs when we are able to label our feelings, voice them without judgment, and be genuine about our thoughts to our deceased loved ones.

Updated July 29, 2019 by Frances Kay.