The Good-bye Letter, Part 2

images3Last week we looked at the importance of a good-bye letter from a dying parent, and how to write the basic letter. In my experience, by answering the questions in last week’s blog, you’ve written a perfect letter and you can stop there. These letters don’t need to be long, but some people like to write more, so I’m going to give some steps of how to do that.

Some other questions you might want to consider for writing a letter to your child:

  • How do you feel about each child individually?
  • What influence do you want to have on their futures?
  • Is there something you can say to help them cope after you’ve died?
  • How do you want them to remember you?
  • What do you most want to tell your child?

I’ll cover the first two questions today.

How do you feel about each child individually?

If you have several children, try not to write the same letter to all of them. A good way to differentiate is to ask yourself how you feel about each child individually. What is special about this individual? What is special about your relationship? An easy way to start is with their birth order and then mention a special talent.

Barbara, my third-born child, you have always amazed me with your creative way of thinking. Where did that come from? Certainly not  from me, nor from your father. You are your own person. My hope for you is that you continue to let your creativity flow in whatever form that takes in your life. It makes you passionate about anything you pursue, whether you’re solving a complex problem or drawing a picture. I love being your mother.

Now if you write a sentence like “I love being your mother,” you probably need to put that in all of your children’s letters. Most siblings are going to want to see the other letters.

What influence do you want to have on their futures?

I encourage you to make this as general as possible. If you have specific goals for them and they don’t meet them, they may feel guilt when they read the letter. Below are a few lines from Paloma to her daughter in The Last Gifts: Creative Ways to Be with the Dying.

Here is all the advice I get to give you. Be your own person. This is how you do it. Don’t be hypnotized by society. Always do what feels right to you even if it’s not the norm. Listen to yourself for guidance. Second, always ask for what you need and want. You may not always get it, but you sure won’t get it if you don’t ask. Be fearless about this. I didn’t learn this lesson until I had cancer. And third, put some effort into being healthy. Try to eat some healthy food, have friends that you love, and balance work, play, and rest.

The Good-bye Letter

letter-writing2After the funeral, I packed up her clothing in boxes destined for Goodwill. “I can’t do it,” my father had said, calling from his office one morning in late July. “Can you please?” I did it that afternoon when no one else was home, and I did it deliberately and mechanically, carefully unfolding and refolding each sweater, waiting for the good-bye letter she never wrote to flutter to the floor.          Hope Eldeman, Motherless Daughters

In my experience of working with the dying, and then leading bereavement support groups, I find that what everyone really wants is a good-bye letter from the person who died, especially if that person is your parent. And I find that they mainly want to know three things:

  • They want to know that you loved them.
  • They want to know that you were proud of them.
  • They want to know about your relationship with them from your perspective. Something personal.

Answering these three questions seems simple, but I won’t pretend it’s emotionally easy. You may need to read these questions and let them settle in your mind for a few days before writing.

This is a confronting act for any dying parent. It takes tremendous courage. Yet, I believe that it is one of the most important acts a parent can do to help her child heal emotionally. Hopefully, the child inherently knows everything in the letter, and hopefully, the parent has been able to say these thoughts and feelings to the child sometime during her life. As memories fade, is is important to have something tangible, a visible symbol of a parent’s love. There are times when children (and adults) need to ask their parent’s advice. At those times, they can take out the letter and, hopefully, be able to hear their parent saying exactly what they need.

I believe so strongly in the importance of the good-bye letter that I’m going to continue to help you with other ideas over the next several blogs. This is a process. We’re going to work on it together step by step.

I also want to thank the hundreds of you who have written to me. I am making a renewed effort to update this blog regularly.

Activity for Children in the Home of a Dying Parent or Grandparent

beaufort-sea-canada-sunset-92541-swWhen there are small children in the home of a dying parent or grandparent, a helpful activity is to have the children decorate the dying person’s room with drawings of heaven. It’s an interesting activity on many levels. It gives the children a sense of something helpful and important to contribute. And it gives the adults in the house a sense of what the children are thinking, and how they’re processing the dying.

The children may just draw clouds, but they may also draw pictures of God or angels. They may draw a pciture of a house with a dog, something just like what they see on earth. A younger child may draw his favorite toys because that’s what makes him happy, and he wants the dying person to be happy. An older child may draw something he knows is special to the dying person (a sailboat, a car, a guitar, or a ball of yarn with knitting needles).

Picking up on the strss of the home, the child may also draw something scary. Sometimes children’s emotional needs are neglected when their is a dying person in the home. The pictures can help identify what the child is thinking and feeling, as well as his fears and concerns. All of this information will help the adults in the home know how to address the child’s specific needs. This is also a good time to get further help from a hospice social worker or chaplain. One of the primary goals of this activity is to open up communication among everyone involved–the children, the dying person, the caregivers in the home, and hospice workers.

The pictures of heaven remind the dying person that he is remembered and loved every time he opens his eyes. The pictures also tend to have a calming effect on everyone who enters the room, making the room feel warm, loving, heartfelt, and creative. This activity gives children a sense of comfort and control when their lives may feel wildly out of control with all the changes going on around them.

52 Reasons I Love You

old_playing_cardsBarbara told me that she and her dad had always loved playing cards. When he was dying, she got a deck of cards and covered each one with a reason she loved him. You always made me feel safe. You were man enough to have a tea party with me when I was five. You taught me how to jump off a diving board when I was ten. You taught me how to ride a bike, and the importance of being brave, which has served me all of my life. You always provided for me when I was growing up, and I’ve always known you would do your best to help me if I needed it as an adult.

This is such a meaningful, personal  activity and it’s one of those activities that works equally well either to or from the dying person. I didn’t know Barbara when her dad was dying. Imagine the gift she would have today if someone had helped her father make a set of cards for her. Or if he had had help writing a simple letter to her. And imagine the closure that would have given him.

These activities aren’t difficult. The person who is dying may just need a little help. It doesn’t matter how young or old we are. We all want to know 52 reasons our parents loved us.

Activities for Persons with Alzheimer’s Disease

catphoto2I’m often asked about what activities to use with persons who have Alzheimer’s Disease, so I’ll be including them from time to time in this blog. I met a woman recently who told me that she placed some playing cards on a table in front of her mother and asked her to match them. Her mother became agitated after just a few minutes. Then she remembered that her mother loved costume jewelry, so she  placed ten pairs of her mother’s earrings on the table and asked her to match them.  Her mother loved this activity, handling the beautiful jewelry a piece at a time. Did she recognize the earrings as hers? I don’t know. But something about the activity was enjoyable and soothing to her. What do you think would be soothing to the person with Alzheimer’s in your life?

Sometimes people with Alzheimer’s Disease can still knit or crochet. One of the keys is to find something familiar to them and see if they know what to do. Do they pet a cat that is put into their lap, or do they become agitated? When working with someone with Alzheimer’s, remember that they may not be able to respond to the words you’re saying because they may not remember what they mean. They may not remember the words “knitting” or  “crocheting,” even if they’re able to do the activities if you put needles and yarn into their hands. They may not be able to respond to the words you’re saying, but they will respond to your mood, body language, and tone of voice. So speak to them naturally, calmly, and with kindness. There’s a difference between calling someone a term of endearment, or speaking to them in baby talk.

I was recently in Atlanta to speak at a hospice conference. The first person I spoke with was the woman who sold me a ticket for the shuttle from the airport to my hotel. I was stressed because my luggage was a little late, and I needed to get to the hotel as soon as possible. She could see my stress and assured me by calling me “Sugar,” except with her beautiful Southern accent, it sounded more like “Sugah.” She called me this about four or five times, and by the end of our conversation I felt that all was right in the world.  If she had spoken to me in baby talk, or without compassion, I would have felt frustrated and inadequate. Instead, with that sweet term of endearment, she calmed me down.

When working with a person with Alzheirmer’s Disease, or any dying person, remember to be in the moment and trust your intuition.

Room for Change: Practical Ideas of Reviving After Loss


Last year I met Susan Willett Reynolds who has written a beautiful book called Room for Change: Practical Ideas for Reviving After Loss. Susan is a physical therapist, an interior re-designer, and more recently, a widow. After her husband died, she took her knowledge of physical therapy and design and wrote a book about changing your environment if it no longer serves you after your loved one has died. She goes through your house from the front door to the back, to the exterior, and even inside your car.

We are such creatures of habit that we tend to do things the same way, long after they quit serving us. Even though I hadn’t had a recent personal loss when I read her book, I found myself making some changes. To name a few of the changes I made, I ordered a new desk chair because the old one was uncomfortable, I repositioned my desk so I can see out the window, and I replaced the pillow in my car that I didn’t even realize annoyed me so much because I had to reposition it every time I got in the car. It was so helpful to look at each area of my life and ask the question “what no longer serves me?”

This is a great exercise to do with someone who is dying. As they decline, their needs change rapidly and need to be re-evaluated weekly, daily, hourly, or in the moment. If they’re confined to their home, what can be done to make their house more efficient? What is their routine, and how can it be simplified?  Or if they’re confined to bed, do they need more pillows to make themselves comfortable. Can they sit at a comfortable angle when they eat? Are there pictures of loved ones, and are they surrounded by objects they love? Do they need a trapeze bar over a hospital bed so they can use it to turn over, or just take some pressure off their back? Are their personal belongings within easy reach? What brings them comfort? What no longer serves them? Just ask them. They’ll know the answers. Everyone has different needs.

A new year is a good time to evaluate what’s working in your life right now, and what’s simply annoying because it has become a habit you no longer notice. I highly recommend Room for Change: Practical Ideas for Reviving After Loss if you have recently lost someone that you lived with, or if you’re like me and just want to live in comfort. Check out Susan’s website and book. You can also email her with questions, or share your successes.

I wish you strength, comfort, love, and support during your time of loss, and in the new year ahead.

Personal gift from a dying person


This activity simply requires a small box, paper, pen, and a few dreams. The small box is designated as a Dream Box (or Wish Box or Prayer Box–whatever resonates). The caregiver can help the dying person with writing if needed. This is a thoughtful, heartfelt gift that can be made for each family member and friend, providing some closure for the dying person. He simply writes his wishes, dreams, or prayers for the person receiving the gift on slips of paper. Examples: I hope your life is filled with love; know that I will always love you. Or…I wish you laughter every day of your life; your sense of humor has been so helpful to me. Or…My dream for you is to have a good night’s sleep; if you have that, everything else seems to fall into place. Or…I wish for you to explore your creativity, in whatever way makes you happy. OK, you get the drift.

The box can be gift wrapped or tied with a simple ribbon. This is a lasting, precious gift of dreams and memories of the person who wrote them. And it’s not just for the dying–years ago, my friend Amy Hoffman, gave me a small hand-painted wooden prayer box with her prayers for me inside. For years, I have loved opening this box and reading Amy’s sweet words. You can’t imagine how precious this gift will become in 5, 10, or 20 years.

Holidays–activities for caregivers and dying persons


Helping a dying person send holiday cards gives him a chance to reach out to others. He can dictate notes for you to write if he is unable. I wrote holiday cards for a young man with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) one year and watched him turn anger and resentment into love and forgiveness, knowing this would probably be his last time to reach out to distant friends and relatives who had quit coming to see him in the nursing home. That same year, I worked with a woman in a nursing home across town whose goal was to receive enough holiday cards to cover the bathroom door at the foot of her bed. She didn’t want to include notes; she just wanted to make sure the return address was legible. And it worked–we were able to decorate her room with the cards she received, making her feel loved and remembered.

Making or buying holiday gifts may be too overwhelming for a dying person to do alone. You can offer to help them make gifts, or take them shopping if they are able. Or you can help them buy gifts on the internet. or help them organize a list and then offer to do the shopping for them. I have done it all of these ways. The goal is simply for them to be able to give holiday gifts to their loved ones, any way it can happen.

Some people want decorations, and for others it’s overwhelming. Just ask, and then stay open to the possibilities. Maybe Hanukkah candles can be lit in their room, or the family Christmas tree can be set up in there. Maybe it’s as simple as setting up a manger scene, lighting a pine-scented candle, or putting Christmas lights around the foot of the hospital bed.

Whatever you celebrate, I hope that you are able to create rich, nurturing moments together, with sweet, lasting memories for yourself.

Experiencing Luxury–an activity for a caregiver and a dying person



I’m taking a 12-week Artist’s Way class with Julia Cameron. One of our assignments this week is to spend $5 on luxury.

Sometimes people who are living their dying find luxury in the moment because they pay more attention and their senses are heightened. But sometimes they feel the poverty of not being able to do the things they could before, like something as simple as having the strength to take a bath on their own. And often, it’s a combination of both. So I encourage you to do this activity that I learned from Julia for yourself—quickly, write down ten things that mean luxury to you. Then take $5 and buy something luxurious—hand-milled soap, a latte at your favorite café, a beeswax candle, whatever luxury means to you.

Now ask the person who is dying what luxury means to them, and how you can provide it for them. Maybe it’s a bowl of ice cream with fresh strawberries and chocolate syrup. Or it might be a vase of fresh flowers, or getting the sheets changed more often. Maybe it’s lavender lotion. They might want a birdfeeder or wind chimes outside their bedroom window. It’s entirely personal.

Luxury doesn’t always equal expensive. The example Julia gave in class was buying raspberries. They’re usually about $5 and you only get about 20. Seems so over-priced to me. But if I reframe it and recognize that I can have that luxury for only $5, it’s totally worth it. If raspberries are your passion, what a gift!

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