The idea of a love letter usually inspires thoughts of young love and the future. But death is the starting point for something called an End of Life Love Letter. These are letters you write to family members and friends for them to open usually after you die.
Shary Farr teaches a workshop on end of life love letters at the Hospice Giving Foundation in Monterey. She says she came up with the idea after working 40 years in end of life care.
Shary Farr (SF): I saw too many people that were dying without letters. And I saw adult kids who felt guilty for whatever they did or didn't do for their parents. I saw some people who were the ones ultimately that died that had done estate plans that were punishing: one child over another, and yet, that wasn't really their intention. And that's the last memory they're going to leave, and what they really intended to leave was love. I just saw a lot of unresolved issues with the dying patient and with the people that were left after they died. And I thought the only way or one of the ways that we can get beyond any misunderstandings is to have these love letters that are just louder than any daily hiccups, emotional hiccups in our lives.
Krista Almanzan (KA) And how does the love letter do that?
SF: I think each and every one of us wants to leave love behind, no matter what. And I think we forget that we could die in the middle of an argument with our spouse or a parent. And that could be the last memory for the people that we leave behind. And that would stay with him for a long time.
KA: You got a letter from your brother after he passed away. How did that impact you?
SF: It was huge for me. He had come to live with us when he had melanoma about 10 years ago. And as he was getting to the end of his life, he became very, very quiet, and we didn't have a lot of conversations. And so he left me this beautiful letter that I still carry with me. Thanking me for my caring for him when he was sick and all the things that we did together, you know, as kids and some wonderful memories with my parents. It just it was louder than the silence that we had between us. Before he died.
KA: And do you think that helps you remember him differently than you otherwise would have without that letter?
SF: Yes I think I would have felt that his silence at the end of his life. There were moments when he got so quiet which was his way of letting go before he died. I took some of that silence personally. I felt that I wasn't doing enough for him. And so the letter put all those doubts about our relationship to the side.
KA: You wrote one of these love letters to your husband, Sam, our region’s former Congressman. You read it in the workshop. Do you mind reading some of that here?
SF: I wrote this letter to Sam. If I am ever to become deep in dementia I wanted Sam to have this letter that would free him up to have a good life. And it goes like this.
Dear Sam it's your birthday, and Sam's birthday is the Fourth of July. I want to bring new decisions for old situations. What to do if I get dementia or some disease which takes me away. I want you to do two things. I want you, number one, to forget the promise we made to each other to keep the other one at home, no matter what, especially if I have dementia. Please move me to a facility sooner rather than later knowing that I will need more help than you and Jess can provide. I can then be best cared for by professional caregivers, people who love their work and hopefully are treated well by their employers who will honor their skills. Remember it is okay to put me in this facility or this one, but if you put me in some of these others that I have listed I will come back and haunt you. Please, please, please continue to create a full life for yourself and Jess, Ella and Zach. Giving up your life and choosing not to be enriched or happy will not cure my disease. I want you out in the world that you love so much. And if that includes taking trips, getting a dog or having a new relationship so be it. Or having a new relationship so be it...
KA: And it continues on from there. Was that hard to write?
SF: So much harder than I thought. I sat down to say, well I need to write my own letter to Sam giving him permission, and I was in tears at the end. And I still get teary when I read it to myself or read it in a class.
Shary Farr teaches a workshop on writing these End of Life Love Letters at the Hospice Giving Foundation, which has supported KAZU. Underwriters do not affect our journalism.