Letters Never Sent

It may seem paradoxical to speak of “a letter never sent,” at least to write one without the intent of sending it. By definition, the purpose of a letter seems to be to communicate, to send a message from one person to another.

A “letter never sent” does have a purpose, one that includes communication but also extends beyond it. For one thing, writing a “letter never sent” may have a cathartic benefit. It can provide emotional release from unresolved conflicts in the past. It can relieve such negative feelings as fear, anger, and anxiety. Reading a “letter never sent” also might have a clarifying function, giving us a better perspective on past events and relationships. As a reader, reviewing what we have written, we bring greater maturity to difficult earlier circumstances, helping us to understand them in a more positive and enabling way.

The title for this activity derives from a book written by Ruth E. Van Reken. In Letters Never Sent: One Woman’s Journey from Hurt to Wholeness, Van Reken recounts her experience growing up as a “missionary kid” in Nigeria in the 1950s. Leaving home and attending boarding school was a rite of passage for such children as young Ruth and she was expected to cope with the grief of separation with a ‘stiff-upper lip.’ Years later, she wrote a series of “Dear Mom and Dad” letters describing her childhood sense of loss and despair. The book is series of letters, spanning many years of life, and as the author says in her introduction, it is “a story about healing—not physical healing, but emotional.”

In “Letter, Much Too Late,” Wallace Stegner offers another profound example of the cathartic and clarifying functions such writing can offer. Stegner was a Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist, a short story writer, essayist, historian, teacher and environmentalist. His writing students included Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, and Larry McMurtry. His famous autobiography Wolf Willow is set in Eastend, Saskatchewan.

Published in 1989 when Stegner was almost 80 years old, “Letter, Much Too Late” was written to his mother, who had died years before and at an age much younger than Stegner. Though he had been “the sickly child,” Stegner said, he “got the genes and the luck” and now had outlived all of his family.  At his advanced age, Stegner confesses to his mother that he often feels lost, “as much in need of comfort, understanding, forgiveness, uncritical love—the things you used to give me—as I ever was at five, or ten, or fifteen.”  He recalls her kindness, sympathy, patience, and wholehearted forgiveness and the lessons she taught him. He endeavours now—“much too late”—to tell her what she meant to him. His letter is a moving tribute to the woman who nurtured him.

As you think of people in your life, living or dead, you too may find benefit in writing an unsent letter. As you write, you may recall important aspects of the relationship—the needs you felt, the uncertainties you faced, perhaps the conflicts you experienced as well as the interests you’ve shared, the emotional support you’ve received, the trust and respect and the honest communication you’ve known. 

The act of remembering and writing will bring suppressed feelings to the surface of your consciousness, providing a cathartic sense of release and positive emotions that help to rekindle your energy. 

Though your letter is unsent, it will convey a message—to you! As you re-read and reflect on the message of each communication, you are likely to gain new perspectives and insights into your relationship with the person addressed.

May you recall readily, record fully, and reflect meaningfully.