Fixing Families

Tools for walking the intergenerational tightrope

Getting Closure: 3 Letters

It's time to put the past to rest.

Unfortunately, like a lot of guys Sam didn’t grieve much when his dad died. He had to take care of his mom, handle the funeral and estate, and at the time essentially became the good tin soldier, sucking up most of his emotions. But now it’s taking its toll – he’s constantly anxious and irritable. 

Terry was fired from her job, unfairly she felt. While other staff were struggling with the same problems she was, she felt that her boss was singling her out. Months later she is resentful and depressed.

What Sam and Terry have in common is a lack of closure. Sam never went through the grief process around the loss of his dad; Terry never got a chance to actually confront her boss and get things off her chest. These unresolved emotions and unexpressed feelings can work like an undertow in your life and keep you from emotionally and behaviorally moving forward.

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A simple yet powerful exercise I often prescribe for clients in such situations and one you can do on your own is a letter writing. Actually there are 3 letters and the instructions go like this:

I’d like to imagine that __________ (your dad, your boss, your old boyfriend) were to come back and see you for one hour. What is it that you would like to say to and hear from that person? I’d like to try and write 3 different letters. Find a quiet place and a time when you are not rushed to do this.

Letter #1. Write down all things you wished you had said or want to say now. Sam may talk about how much he loved his dad, or express his anger over something that happened when he was young, or describe his memories of a family trip when he was 4. Terry may write about her anger and the unfairness or what she misses most about her job. The goal is take your time and get everything off your chest and out of your heart and mind that you didn’t get a chance to say.

Letter #2. If this other person were to get this letter and you knowing them, what would they say back? If Sam’s dad was a bit crusty and closed, he might say something like short and sweet like “Thanks, Sam, got your letter, I love you too.” Terry’s boss may says something defensive like “Our policy has always been…” If the person was open and your relationship was good, this letter could be optional.

Letter #3. This one is probably the most important. This time write down all you would want the person to ideally say back if he or she received your first letter. Sam’s dad may talk not only about how proud he is of Sam, but also about his own regrets as a dad – that he wasn’t available or that he realized that he was overbearing at times – or his own memories of their time together or his own struggles as an adult. Terry’s boss may say that she did realize that she was singling Terry out, apologize, and then explain why – that she was threatened by skills or has always had a difficult time with assertive women, which really has nothing to do with Terry.

Just let your imagination go, settle down deep into your feelings, see what comes to the surface. What you may hear may not only be surprising but healing as well.

When you’ve completed the three letters, step away from them for a short period of time, but then re-read them aloud to yourself, or ideally to someone close to you who can just listen. The process of doing this may stir up some strong and sad emotions. Again leave yourself plenty and time and space to do this.

Needless to say this exercise can be emotionally powerful on a couple of levels. Obviously you are completing the circle by saying what you couldn’t say and didn’t but needed to hear. But because all losses are connected emotionally, you may be healing older and still deeper wounds of the past at the same time (you may find yourself shifting gears as you write and find yourself thinking about or talking to someone else once you start). That’s fine – just keep writing.

Again, take your time, don’t hold back.

It’s time to put the past to rest.

 

Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. has 40 years of clinical experience. He is author of 6 books and over 300 articles and provides training nationally and internationally.

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