The Good-bye Letter, Part 5

Jillian Brasch | December 30th, 2011

images9What do you most want to tell your child? Can you sum it up in one sentence? One paragraph? Is it about you, or him, or someone else? Is it clearing up a rumor or misperception that has followed you all of your life?

Bobby was 29 years old, lived in a nursing home because of the care he needed for his ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and rarely got to see his 6-year-old daughter, Kim.  I suggested that Bobby might want to write a letter to his daughter about special memories he had about her–how he felt the first time he saw her, her first words, sweet memories he had of her, etc.

The next time I visited, Bobby had typed twelve pages and he wanted me to read them. There was little about how he felt about this daughter or his experiences with her. It was a confession and I felt uneasy as I read about his sordid past. At first, in my mind, I judged it. After I thought about it for a while, I realized it was perfect. He knew that all Kim’s life she would hear only one side of the story and he needed to be able to tell his when she was older. “Yes, I treated your mother badly. Yes, I had an affair. And yes, I’m sorry for all this.”

Bobby requested that the letter be given to Kim when she was eighteen. Most dying parents choose a time that they want the letters to be given. I always recommend that children are not given the letter on their birthdays. Birthdays are happy occasions. No one can be happy and sad at the same time. It will be a significant event in their lives to receive this letter, and there will probably be some feelings of loss, even if the child was very young when their parent died. I encourage the dying parent to trust the person delivering the letter to know when it is the right time.

I also encourage parents, if at all possible, not to die with secrets to be revealed later in letters. Kim knew her dad had been unfaithful to her mom. Bobby’s letter was just one more chance to say “I’m sorry.” It feels unfair to have a secret revealed when the parent is not there to discuss any potential questions. I just wanted to mention that, but each parent has to make the best decision about what should go in a letter. You’ll do your best for your child–that’s why you’re writing the letter.

Next week in the final blog in this series,  I’ll give an example of a good-bye letter.

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