Let’s assume you’re well-organized. All your personal papers are in order, your will and living will are up to date, and you’ve named a health care proxy. You’ve readied final instructions and listed which of your heirs get which personal mementos. Are you done?
No. As helpful as all your preparations are going to be, nowhere have you mentioned love.
VJ Periyakoil, a specialist in geriatrics and palliative care at the Stanford University Medical Center, has had countless conversations with people near the end of their lives. The most common thing they talk about, she says, is regret — regret that they hadn’t spoken enough loving words to their spouse, or told their children how much they cared, or apologized for doing something hurtful, or thanked a special friend.
It’s not too late, as long as you still can put pen to paper (or hand to keyboard). Think about writing your family or best friend a “last letter,” showing what’s in your heart. Your words will make their lives a little better.
It’s often tough to get started on such a letter, especially when you’re still healthy and don’t feel an immediate need. But there’s help. The Stanford Letter Project, founded by Periyakoil, offers a friends-and-family letter template for your thoughts, as well as suggestions on what to include. You’ll find the template and sample letters at med.stanford.edu/letter.
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Good letters start the way you might expect — acknowledging the important people in your life, telling them that you love them and expressing pride in their achievements. Maybe you think you don’t have to write these things down because you’ve said them already. But spoken words sometimes get lost in the family scrum. Written, they can be held in the hand, and cherished, for life. You might also mention treasured moments you spent with your child, family or friend.
Next comes a harder part — the apology section. Many patients, looking back, find themselves pained by specific actions or behaviors that hurt one of the people they love, Periyakoil says. She urges you to say you’re sorry. One letter won’t fix, say, a distant relationship with a sister. But it might make her (and you) feel a little better. If you write this letter while still healthy, it might even impel you to try healing that relationship. In this respect, these letters become what Periyakoil calls a CT scan of your soul. They can open new paths while you’re still alive.
You might also forgive anyone you love who has hurt you in the past, if you can. It’s solace for those you love, and cathartic for you. If you can’t forgive, keep mum. A last letter from you should be one of love and reconciliation, not spite. Death does not end your responsibility to those you leave behind.
Finally, remember to thank people for the love and care that you have received, and say goodbye.
Once you’re finished, put the letter (or letters) with your will or in a drawer where you store precious things. When you’re ready, consider delivering the letter yourself. For your family, it will be an abiding gift.