There are times when a loved one dies unexpectedly or suddenly and important things are left unsaid or undone. Even worse, relationships may be injured by disagreements and conflicts that were not resolved before the untimely departure of our friend or next-of-kin. Either of these scenarios can exacerbate the grief we experienced and leave us feeling not only guilty and full of regrets, but also helpless in terms of anything that can now be done that could anyway alter the situation.
In such cases, some psychologists suggest composing a letter to the departed in which we express all the range of emotions felt in the loss. Many who engage in this process convey their gratitude and love, both seeking and granting forgiveness. Others may even promise to continue to be faithful to the memory of the departed in various ways. Psychologically, this can be a powerful and healing experience that can bring some needed relief and peace. Psychotherapist Alexandra Kennedy devotes a section of her website to the beneficial task of composing a letter to the deceased loved one. She recommends such a letter contain the following:
What experiences have I been through since my loved one’s death?
What do I miss? What do I regret? What issues in our relationship remain unresolved?
What do I appreciate? What have I learned about myself, my loved one, and my relationship? What do I want to carry on?
The Christian who hears such advice may wonder if this is anything more than a useful technique to find one’s emotional bearings and move on. From a Christian perspective, there are two points to keep in mind. First, death entails a physical absence, but not a spiritual one. Saint Theophan the Recluse illustrated this point in his effort to console someone whose sister was dying. “Your sister will not die; the body dies, but the personality of the dying one remains. It only goes over to another order of life. It is not she whom they will put in the grave. She is in another place. She will be just as alive as you are now. In the first hours and days she will be around you. Only she will not say anything, and you won’t be able to see her; but she will be right here. Have this in mind.” This foundational Christian belief of the continuity of life in death means that the exercise of writing a letter to the departed is not just a therapeutic use of the imagination. It can be based firmly on faith in the communion of the living and the departed in Christ. Saint Silouan put it beautifully, “The Saints live in another world, and there through the Holy Spirit they behold the glory of God and the beauty of the Lord’s countenance. But in the same Holy Spirit, they see our lives, too, and our deeds. They know our sorrows and hear our ardent prayers…And if love makes one unable to forget a brother here, how much more do the Saints remember and pray for us” (Saint Silouan, page 309). With respect to writing a letter to the departed, this means that we can do so with the assurance that our loved ones can hear (or read) our words and if they are in the realm of the blessed, they do so with an understanding, kindness, love, and forgiveness that have all the marks of paradise itself.
The second point to keep in mind are the many injunctions in Scripture that Christians “do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate” (1 Timothy 6:18). According to Saint John Chrysostom, this means we are to be loving, generous, and ready to reach out to our neighbors, whoever they may be (Homily 18 on First Timothy). This applies first and foremost to the living, but there is a room in this commandment also for those who have fallen asleep in the Lord. A letter to our departed love one can be our way of graciously and lovingly reaching out to them. There is great spiritual benefit in asking forgiveness from the departed as well as giving thanks to God for the life that has now passed. If anger or resentment were present at the time of death, a written expression either granting or seeking forgiveness can assist both the living and the departed. Even in situations where the issue is a lack of gratitude, such a belated demonstration of thanksgiving calms the soul and heals a relationship.
And although we may wish with all our heart that we had said these things in life, this does not mean that we who are still living are unable to say these things now in death or that those whom we love are now unable to hear what we say. It may be too late to do so in their physical presence, but it is not too late to do so in their spiritual presence. Saint Cyprian of Carthage once wrote, “To someone who still remains in this world no repentance is too late” (Address to Demetrianus). His fellow Latin-speaking ecclesiastical writer Arnobius also notes that in eternity, “where there is no end and no beginning, nothing is too soon, nothing too late (Arnobius, Against the Heathen). Keeping these tenets of the faith in mind, if we feel the need to reach out to a departed loved one and to pour our heart in written form, we should feel free to do so. It is never wrong to have loving thoughts, to make kind gestures, or do good deeds.