Many of us were not able to have closure with a loved one before they died. We did leave things unsaid, and they did too. We might have a wide range of unexpressed emotions running the gamut from gratitude, love, regrets, guilt and even anger. So what do we do with all of those emotions? How do we release the things that are still bubbling under the surface and how do we move forward?

Frequently, this question comes up when I am leading a Leave Nothing Unsaid letter writing workshop. I can often see it in people’s eyes. A loved one might have died suddenly and unexpectedly with no chance to say goodbye. Or with the passage of time since someone’s death, feelings have come into clearer focus. For most of us, there are still things we wish we could say to the one who is gone.

And I always share some wise advice that was given to me a decade ago.

Ten years ago this coming week, my husband of 24 years died of liver cancer. Although he had many wonderful character qualities, there were challenging facets, too. And after his short but grueling battle with cancer and resultant painful death, I was left with a lot of jumbled emotions. Yes, I had written him an affirming letter shortly after his diagnosis. But I still had things I regretted leaving unsaid.

A counselor suggested that I write “him” a letter, even though he was deceased. The purpose of this letter was very different from the type of affirming letter I encourage writing to a living recipient. This letter was for me, to help me unpack the many emotions I was still processing.

Included in the letter were:
-Things I miss about you
-Things I don’t miss about you
-Things I’m grateful for about our life together
-Things I wish we had done
-Things I forgive you for
-Things I want you to forgive me for

I wrote the letter shortly before what would have been our 25th wedding anniversary. And on the actual anniversary day, I went to the cemetery, sat by his grave, and read the letter out loud. I shed some tears. But I felt a great release from being able to express everything that was in my heart. I then went home and burned the letter. It wasn’t for anyone else to see.

Perhaps you or someone you love has things left unsaid, too, with a deceased spouse or parent or sibling. Try writing a letter like this. Be completely honest. Read it aloud, privately, in a place that is meaningful to you. Then, destroy the letter. Remember, you’re not doing this for any reason other than your own emotional healing. I promise that it will help you in your grieving process.

Maybe it wasn’t a physical death. Maybe it was the death of a relationship due to divorce or abandonment by a parent. Writing this same type of letter can be very therapeutic. And yes, I know that you would probably like to actually send that letter in a ticking package. Please don’t. This is a little crude, but the wisdom applies: “Don’t get in a pissing contest with a skunk!”

Recently, I’ve thought a lot about my late husband. A decade of life has given me tremendous perspective and gratitude. And I’m in the process of writing another letter which I will read aloud this coming week in a place that was meaningful to us.

There is tremendous power in the written word. A letter can be a beautiful gift to someone you love. And it can be a beautiful gift to you, too, when used for your own healing by leaving nothing unsaid to someone who is gone.