Lasting Letters: Leaving a legacy behind
“Lasting Letters: Leaving a legacy behind” reports on legacy letters and how they are helping people prepare for death, say goodbye, and grieve loved ones after they are gone.
Opening up and sharing my thoughts and feelings is not something that comes naturally to me. Often times I get wrapped up in my thoughts and stumble over my words. Five years ago I wasn’t any different. With my dad sick, and dying of cancer, I didn’t know what to say.
After he passed, I regretted not having had deeper conversations with him, or telling him how much I loved him. Then I stumbled across an article about a letter-writing project at Stanford, where people were being encouraged to write a last letter to loved ones and address topics like apology, forgiveness, and acknowledgement.
I realized that a letter might have helped me find the words. I wanted to learn more.
“Life review tasks”
Launched in 2015, theStanford Letter Project is a set of tools specifically designed to help people prepare for the last phase of life. The project offers various easy-to-use templates including aFriends and Family Letter that guides people through seven “life-review tasks,” such as identifying treasured life moments, seeking and giving forgiveness, and conveying gratitude and love to your friends and family.
Those who participate are left with a lasting letter — or legacy letter — that they can share with their loved ones. It is available in eight languages and in print, through the web, and as an iPhone and Android App. There are two different versions, one for people who are currently healthy, and another for people who are ill.
I sat down with Dr. VJ Periyakoil, the author of the article that originally piqued my interest. She’s the director of the Stanford Palliative Care and Education & Training Program, and founder of the Stanford Letter Project.
I shared my story with her and told her how, after my dad passed, I managed my grief by staying busy. I explained that I thought that as long as I kept moving, as long as I was “productive,” I could keep myself and my emotions in check. That worked for a while until I realized I was just becoming numb.
I told her how sometimes I’ll scroll through old text, search emails, watch old family videos, or listen to saved voicemails, with the hope of learning something new about my dad.
I mused aloud what my dad might have shared with me if we had only known about these letters. Gently, she expressed her condolences, answered my questions, and talked to me about my grief.
“When you process this grief you will be able to take this energy and reinvest it in other daily work and other relationships,” she told me. “Right now, all your chips are invested in this work, and that's why you find yourself not having any bandwidth for anything else.”
What she said made sense. What also made sense was writing a letter and making others aware of this resource. I asked if she knew people who might be willing to share their stories with me.
“Conversations I should be having”
She put me in touch with Matthew Schoen and Michael Richardson, two Stanford medical students who, after being involved in the research, decided to participate in the project themselves.
Matt said he witnessed firsthand the incredible conversations that were happening between his patients and their families and felt inspired.
“I realized these are conversations I should be having with my own family,” he said, “so I wrote the letter last August.”
He explained his process: “I tried to imagine myself sitting in a hospital bed, or sitting at home and knowing that I had two minutes to talk to Mark, or two minutes to talk to Connor — those are my brothers — and what I would tell them.”
Then, he shared some of his letter with me:
“To Connor, I'm sorry for all the times I pushed you too hard. I hope you know how proud I am of you. I want to ask you for your forgiveness for hurting you. I am sorry and I love you. To Mom and Dad, thank you for always allowing your kids to grow and develop into whoever they want to be. You only encouraged, never pushed. You always had our back. Thank you for making such an incredible home. Home was special. This place is magical. I want to thank you very much for everything that you've done for me.”
Matt’s awareness and self reflection did not go unnoticed. After he finished reading his letter, his mom Lynn told me that the way he wrote about his relationship to his siblings gave her a sense of relief.
“I've always wanted my children to be close and stick together, and realize the value of one another,” she said. ”So hearing all that, I just kind of felt full of love and gratitude at the moment.”
While the letter brought forth a release of emotions between family members, it also opened the door of communication and, as Matt explained, it “made the conversation about death less intimidating.”
When my dad was sick, my sister Sierra and I took care of him, but we never talked about him dying.
Even now, saying it feels uncomfortable.
Instead we focused on his appointments and his physical comfort, never really checking in on our feelings or acknowledging the situation for what it was.
Deep down, I think we knew he was going to die, but we couldn’t process it, because processing meant that we were accepting it.
Hard to express
Still, now, I feel guilty for all that time that I could have spent with my dad, but chose to do something else instead. I wish that I shown my appreciation for all the times he put me first, and seen that his silence was his way of protecting me.
When he first found out about his cancer he called me to check in and see how I was doing, but didn’t mention that he was in the hospital and that doctors were running tests to find out what was wrong.
When I found out, I was angry that he wasn’t open, but now I see that he was doing what he thought was best.
Like me, I know it was hard for him to express himself.
As I learned more about these legacy letters I wondered if one could have made my dad feel safer in sharing his feelings. They seemed to do that for others.
Mrs. Loretta Hung, the 87-year-old grandmother of Stanford medical student Michael Richardson, said she found the exercise of opening up really difficult.
“I didn't think about writing,” she confided. “I'm just a person who finds it really hard to express myself.” Loretta and Michael found the Stanford Letter Project’s template helpful in beginning their conversation.
“It was really nice that there was a kind of structured format to follow, and that I didn't have to think of questions on my own,” Michael explained. “I could give her something and let her think about it, and then use it as a way to facilitate the discussion.”
For those looking for an alternative way to begin their letter,Frish Brandt is a great person to get in touch with.
Frish is a volunteer “letter midwife” who offers her time in the hope that it brings comfort to letter writers and receivers. I learned about her work from a volunteer at theZen Hospice Project and reached out to see if I might be able to sit in on one of her sessions.
Initially, Frish suggested that she help me compose a letter, so that I could experience the process firsthand, but I wasn’t ready for that.
Instead we met at her house, and together we drove to meet Kelsey Crowe, an author, speaker, and cancer survivor.
After quick introductions, Frish began her unearthing process, gently prodding Kelsey with questions.
“So tell me, what you are thinking?” she asked. “Who in your life has played a very important role? Is there anything that you would like to say?”
Kelsey, sitting beside her on the couch, answered: “Michael, my husband. He’s very kind, very empathetic, looks at other people's point of views.”
Observing their conversation reminded me of a dance — Frish asking one question and then another, Kelsey opening up and flowing from one topic to the next, Frish tapping rhythmically on her computer all the while.
After about 45 minutes, Frish had a rough draft.
“I’ll read this knowing that it’s a work in progress,” she explained. “The first time you hear it, it’s one thing, and the second time it’s something else. It will start to sound familiar. Hopefully good familiar. And feel free to flesh out any parts.”
She reads back while Kelsey listens:
“Mike, we are such an integral part of each other's lives. I want you to believe in yourself like I do. You’ve done so much for me to help me actualize my potential. I want that for you however that comes”
I watched Kelsey as she quietly nodded in agreement to the sections that resonated with her — and politely interrupted Frish when something didn’t sound right.
They went back-and-forth a few times, reordering the structure and revising pieces of the content.
“They’re like pearls,” Frish stated. “They’re just not strung together quite right.”
As Frish made adjustments, I chatted with Kelsey about my dad. We talked about denial, grief, and it’s process, and she shared with me why she contacted Frish.
“I wanted to do this when I was clear eyed and hopeful, and just imagining the future without me feels for more positive having done this,” she explained.
As I was talking with her, I realized how healing this process of reporting this story has been for me. For the first time in a long time, I’m able to talk about my dad, about his death, about my regret and guilt.
Afterwards, I told Frish how honored I felt to be invited to sit in on their discussion, how amazed I was by their open and easy conversation.
Inspired, I invited my sister to come over and help me go through some of our dad’s things. We looked at pictures, watched old family videos, and reminisced about our dad.
I asked her if she believed, like me, that a letter from one of us could have helped start a conversation.
What she told me caught me completely off guard: She had written my dad, and he didn’t respond.
For years I imagined that, if only I had written a letter, we would have had a great conversation, but of course it wouldn’t have been like that. My sister had tried, and my dad didn’t respond.
The thing is, Sierra didn’t have the same expectations as I did.
“I didn't expect him to write me back,” she told me. “It was good for me because I know that he heard things that I never actually verbally said, and I know that he knows.”
That alone was enough for her. Her letter didn’t start a conversation, but it didn’t need to. My sister found peace in the act of writing, and I don’t have that.
What I do have is what I’ve discovered working on this story.
I think that learning about legacy letters, meeting Michael and his grandma, Matt and Lynn, Frish and Kelsey, all of that has helped me start processing my grief. Just talking about my dad, and unpacking his things and my feelings, has been good.
I understand now that finding peace is not really about receiving a legacy letter, or writing one in the hopes of getting a certain kind of response, it’s about making sure you say the things that you want to.
This story has helped me do that. I guess, in a way, that makes it my legacy letter to my dad.
This original audio documentary originally aired in October 2017, and was produced by KALW reporter Jeremy Jue and edited by Lisa Morehouse. Last year, it received the “Best Feature” award by the San Francisco Press Club. You can learn more about the Stanford Letter Project and Frish Brandt’s letter writing service here.