The Letter Writing Revolution

Revitalizing a Lost Art One Letter at a Time

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Letter to Someone Dying

Many years ago, when I was in my early 20's, I was living across the country in Whistler, BC. One of my dad's best friends, Al, was sick with cancer and after many months of fighting, it was obvious he was losing his battle. Al was a part of my whole life. I can remember him sitting at my parent's kitchen table for as long as I can remember. He was a fixture in our lives and in the early days, we would spend evenings at their home and they would come to ours to play cards with other couples. There was always lots of teasing and laughing. Al was a character to say the least and attempting to describe him in words would likely result in a less than accurate portrayal of this man. When I got the news that his wife had brought him home to die, I felt somewhat distraught as I knew I wouldn't be able to fly home for his funeral. I felt a strong need to express my thoughts and feelings to Al and so I sat down and wrote a letter and mailed it to his wife. I asked her to read it to him. I will never know if he heard or understood the words I wrote, but it was so uplifting for me to write the thoughts down and know that they would eventually be released to him whether or not he ever comprehended it. I knew on some level, though, that he heard my words.

Three years ago, my older sister received the devastating news that her very dearest friend, Rachael, had been given the news that the cancer she had recently celebrated the remission of, had returned and it had returned with a vengeance. Rachael was in her mid-30's and was a beautiful, glorious spirit of a woman. The cancer was aggressive and had invaded many areas of her body. Within days she was palliative and my sister few out to BC to be by her side. I was also a friend of Rachael's. I had met her through my sister and became friends with her when we both lived in the same city on Vancouver Island in the late 90's. We had been looking forward to a summer visit to Ontario by Rachael and her husband but we knew that this trip would never unfold as planned. I sent a letter to my sister to take with her to read to Rachael for me as I knew I would never see her again. This is the letter:

 November 2007

Dear Rachael;

I asked Lana to bring you this message from me. I know that we don’t know what the days/weeks ahead hold and so I decided to share some things with you that I’ve never gotten around to telling you. They’re the thoughts I have about you when I think of you, see a photo of you or when Lana talks about you.

“Life has a funny way of sneaking upon you when you think everything’s okay….”

It’s hard to know what to say when life throws a curve ball and you have no choice but to face it head on. Some things, I have learned, make absolutely no sense (at least not in my mind). I suppose if I were more religious, I might be less judgmental of the way things unfold sometimes.

I want you to know a few things, Rachael. When I think of my life so far, I think of the many people with whom I have crossed paths. You are one of those people who played a big role in my life when I initially moved to Victoria and felt lost and very alone. I recall meeting you for coffee and a smoke!! You lifted me up and I thought that one day I’d like to be “cool” like Rachael. I’m still working towards that!! I always felt a sense of security knowing you were in that city.

You are the best hugger. I have never met anyone who puts their whole entire body into a hug as you do. You can feel that it is genuine. I’ve never liked the ‘patters’. You know, the ones that cautiously lean in and pat your shoulder blade with their hand as though you might bite. I hate that!! You are an excellent hugger, Rachael. You could teach a class on how to hug properly!!

Let’s see………your laughter is unique and I can hear it in my head if I sit quietly. Bellowing and husky and never fake. I remember the times that I would see you at the Mocha House, you would have a big smile on your face and always be laughing about something!!

You probably don’t remember this but when I was feeling really low, you handwrote the piece “On Pain” by Kahlil Gibran and those words were so powerful that to this day. I have that page glued into one of my books of collected treasures. When I read the line: Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding,” I recall a shift taking place within myself and I think that it was then that I began to understand that the suffering I was experiencing had a purpose. That time was many, many years ago and I suspect you don’t even remember doing that. I just want you to know that I have never forgotten your kindness in that time in my life.

I am thinking of you every single minute of the day and praying for miracles.
I love you! Shine On……..
Love Julie

Rachel died within three weeks.
Beautiful Rachael

In early November, my 92-year-old Grandmother, suddenly became ill and was soon hospitalized with congestive heart failure. We assumed she would perk up and return home in no time but we quickly realized that her body was tired and was shutting down. After five weeks in hospital, my parents made the decision on Christmas Day to bring her home to die. This was not uncommon in my parent's lifetime but now with hospices and chronic floors in hospitals, most people die away from home. My mother was a Registered Nurse for over 40 years and so she feels very comfortable in caring for her mother-in-law at home in these final days. There is a lot of family around to make this possible and we all feel very privileged to be a part of Grandma's end of life care.

Prior to bringing her home, I met my older sister in Ottawa and she handed me a letter to bring to Grandma to read to her just in case she didn't get a chance to see her alive again. I brought the letter to the hospital on Christmas Eve day and explained to Grandma who the letter was from and proceeded to read it. My sister wrote down her thoughts of Grandma and the impact she has had on her life. I know that Grandma understood everything I read and I know that my sister had closure knowing that should she pass away before my sister made it home again, her words were not left unspoken. She did end up seeing her again over Christmas and is now making arrangements to come and sit with Grandma as we have someone by her side 24-hours a day now. You can read a beautiful post about our Grandma at my younger sister's blog at The Knitty Gritty Homestead, if you wish.

Grandma with my niece~2010

I have lived very close to my Grandmother (within 300 metres) for the past six years and have had the opportunity to visit with her regularly. I feel as though I have had the chance to share my thoughts with her many times over and I know she knows how much I love her. I encourage those of you who cannot be close to someone you love who may be in their final stages of life, to sit down and write to them. Share all of the thoughts in your heart and have someone you trust read your words to them. You will not regret it knowing that you said everything you needed to before the chance was gone forever. And the person who is dying will feel your love and will appreciate leaving this earthly plane with the knowledge that their life had a positive impact on another's life.


  1. Beautiful, Julie! I wish I had written to my grandmother...but I never really felt close to her before. She was beginning to become distant due to Alzheimers before I began to realize that she was a gift. Now I feel the need to write to one of my deceased friends, killed while walking home from school. I regret a few things I said to her because she took it the wrong way.

  2. What a lovely post, Julie. Although it is hard to accept that you may not see someone again, or maybe even speak with them again - writing a letter is an opportunity to both reflect how this person has impacted your own life and to then let them know. My husband's father has cancer and was recently given the news that it had progressed to a terminal stage. My husband prepared to travel to New Zealand to spend time with him, probably for the last time.
    I spoke with our 3 children and asked tham to consider writing a letter to their Granfather to share with him what he meant to each one of them and what they loved, admired and had learned from him over the years. All three of them did just that and spent hours reflecting on their Grandfather, and then spent hours composing their letters to him. When their own Father delivered the letters to him, he was pretty frail. After reading the letters he rallied and was so incredibly touched by their letters. He asked his son to let them know that whenever he was feeling down he would be reading their letters to lift his spirits.
    These letters were a gift to them as well as to their Grandfather. These letters were written at the beginning of September and their Grandfather, although frail is still living.
    Once again, your letter writing campaign inspired me to suggest letter writing to our children, and they are all so grateful that they took the opportunity to write to their Granfather. Thank you Julie .... xoxo

  3. A comment - not so much on TLWR, which is a great thing, but to thank you for bringing me up to speed on the most recent weeks of your grandmother's progressive decline - and I use that word in the physical sense only. Is there anything I can do? Does Pearl's friend, Anne Still, in Westmeath know of your grandmother's condition? In case you don't know Anne, or don't know her well, she may be a distant relative of Pearl's - certainly a long time connection. Anne was born what they used to call "retarded" and nearly blind because her mother had German measles during her pregancy. At least that's what I've been told. She'd be in her early 60s now and her chief caregiver is a cousin who does not live here but has built her a house and apparently manages her hands-on supervision and care. She is very connected to the community and active in the United Church - textbook case for how people with challenges can live successfully. Anyway, if there's anything you'd like me to communicate with Anne, or if it would be good for me to bring her for a visit -- or maybe it's past that stage? -- I would be able to do that. Or perhaps someone else already has this in hand. Anne has spoken to me of Pearl fondly and often over the years, because she knows I know her through working in Cobden.
    You have stated that you are not very religious, and that's OK, especially according to some definitions of religious. I do know that the spirit of God - by whatever name you call the Ground of all Being - is with you and your family and is working through you at this time. Much love - Marie

  4. Hi Julie. I send you and your family love and hugs as you care for your grandmother over the next days or weeks. I pray that she feels that love intensely and gets peace from it. I don't know your grandmother much, but when I first met her, my first thoughts were how beautiful and charming she was....and what a shark she was at playing cards. I know Tyler loved sitting down and playing cards with her and your mom on St Pat's day. Hugs to all. Thinking of you. Em

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It is hard to lose those who you hold dear.But obviously, those in your life were very aware of your love for them. I know that was a great comfort to them and will be as well for your when your grandmother passes,(may it be peaceful and without pain...). I hope that you are able to remember all the good things that these people brought into your life and that it will bring you peace. Elle

  6. Hi Julie,
    Thanks for sharing this. I have thought of Auntie Pearl much over the last few days. I truly enjoyed her visits to the cottage and how she always makes me laugh. I'm sure she'll sparkle as always right to the last minute! Please give her a hug for me!

  7. Hi Juli,
    May you have strength as you spend the coming days with your Grandmother. When my Mother passed some 8 years ago, I was fortunate to spend a final week with her in person and we talked about amazing things, our past and future, saying things more honestly than ever before. Your suggestion about writing letters to friends and relatives who are very ill is right on the mark. May God bless you in the coming days.

  8. I've just come home and altho' it's 5 a.m. and really time for bed.....I had to read TLWR and Stephanie's post about your GG. If we could only all be so live life well and spend our last time with love all around...wouldn't it be a wonderful thing! The special room all fixed for GG makes me smile. She is obviously a very special lady and had helped to make you all the good people you are. Just a short thought right now on your dear friend, beautiful Rachel...I thought the picture had to be one of your family when I first saw it. You are so right that we must take the time to let people know how much they mean to us while we can.

  9. This post touched my heart. Thanks for sharing your beautiful Grandmother with us all.

  10. My grandmother passed away from cancer. It's awful to think of all the wonderful people that die from this disease. I think that the best way to tackle the problem is educating people in prevention. Teaching people how to eat healthy and have to think in a healthier way is all going to help other people out there avoid this situation. The worse is when they are very young. At least when they are older it makes some sense.

  11. I just mailed a letter to my dear Auntie Fay who is dying of cancer and I wish I would have seen your letter to Rachel, Julie, before I mailed it as I would have included even more, personal little tidbits that I'm sure she would have appreciated. In any case, it felt so good to let her know in writing how much I love her and what a godly example she has been to me over the years. I'm so glad I sent it and I know it will mean everything to her! Thank you for sharing your story.

  12. Reading this post tonight gave me the courage and helped me choose a tone for a letter that I needed to write to a dear friend who is near death. She has thanked me many time for small charities that I have gifted over the years, I felt it was time to thank her for the life-healing and spiritual gift our friendship has been for me.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, they were a blessing to me.

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