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Writing Long-Form Letters Can Excavate Hidden Emotions

On January 14, 2022, my eighty-year-old grandmother passed away after a long battle with cancer. While I’m sure there’s a scientific name for what she had, it escapes my mind and tongue at present. Grandma Harden died minutes after 10:00 p.m. in a hospital ward close to home. It’s an ending characteristic of what many of us may experience in our final days. But she was lucky. Her husband and son, my grandfather and father, respectively, stayed with her until the final exhale.

While the two men aren’t the most expressive, I’m sure that the loss fractured Joy-itself into a million glasslike shards of near-inconsolable misery. With distance, I hope recollection’s ability to conjure fondness will also bring the men comfort—a wish I have for all dealing with grief. But, for whatever reason, I’ve always imagined dying in Love’s bask should be somewhat celebrated. How lucky would you be to have people who love you stop by and share stories and palliative comfort?

So, when Grandma Harden’s daughter, my aunt, didn’t show, I found it cowardly and confusing. Didn’t she understand that this would be the final chance to interact with her mother? To be clear, the two had an incredibly close relationship, and the rationale for why she didn’t attend had to do with my aunt’s general discomfort surrounding death. The most gracious way I can write it is that she had the means and opportunity but chose not to visit. She’s also in her fifties. She’s dealt with death before of her grandparents, my great-grandparents. Plus, isn’t death cyclicality poetic and, need I say, common? It’s on the news, in literature, and in conversation. So why not go? Even Grandma’s siblings visited in the days and weeks leading up to the final moments.

But perhaps this judgment is juvenile. Why did I feel the need to discredit or attack another? Each of us processes grief uniquely, as trite as that may sound. Plus, I didn’t show up for her either. When I had the opportunity to say goodbye over Christmas, I, like my aunt, did nothing. However, my rationale was different. We were never close. Grandma held an honorific title only to me, and I loved her like I love my one cousin that I haven’t seen in more than a decade—in an estranged way. But death takes a toll on all of us whether we recognize it at first or not, even if we were not close to the deceased.

Two days later, in the wake of Grandma Harden’s death, my girlfriend purchased a Hallmark card. The intended recipient: my father. She was sweet enough to write niceties in the way society tells women they ought to do, with empathy, but, again, I felt a distaste in my mouth. Feelings of “you were never close” bubbled, and, for a while, I didn’t want to write anything. Also, the last I saw her was on the Fourth of July. But my girlfriend insisted in a way that women know what is best, and I mean that genuinely not sarcastically, to come over and write a few thoughts. These words were for my father, after all, not anyone else.

So, I wrote and filled a page. Then another. And so on.

When I finished writing the long-form letter, I closed my eyes to think of her identity. She was that old lady who gave sloppy kisses on my cheek—the ones I would wipe away as a boy. She was that old lady who was a card shark in Hearts, a terror in Scrabble, and a master of croquet. She was that old lady who never let us win willingly, so when or if we did, the victory tasted sweeter.

As people, we carry repressed feelings, good and bad. Sometimes we hide what we feel or choose not to channel them, and sometimes we don’t know what lies within ourselves. But I encourage everyone to reflect and consider when was the last time you wrote a long-form letter? Out of obligation or otherwise?

Even though letter writing is increasingly diminishing in popularity as an art form and as a method of communication, it has served many well. Frank Kafka and Bob Dylan both relied upon letters they wrote to excavate subsurface emotions. Consider it but one tool for writers. If you happen to have a free moment, I think you’ll surprise yourself as I did, too! Good luck and have fun!

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