You entered my life without my permission. You tried to turn my body against me, leaving pain and uncertainty in your wake… Because of you I wondered if I would see my children grow up… You made me feel like less of a woman …You took my hair and scarred my body. You made me cringe at my own reflection in the mirror. Others see a warrior. I see someone wounded – broken by the battle…(2013 “Writing Through Cancer” workshop participant)
Writing during any difficult life circumstance can help you feel better. When you write, it’s a chance to dive beneath the water line and express the troublesome or difficult emotions that come with upsetting periods in your life. It offers you the freedom to pour out your feelings on the page, helping to relieve or lessen stress—often a culprit in illness and other health problems.
The most healing kind of writing is honest; writing that openly acknowledges your emotions. Your ability to feel and name positive and negative emotions is critical to healing. Sometimes though, when what you may feel is tough to acknowledge. You might be reluctant to be honest on the page, particularly when what you want really want to say might feel like a confessional: conflicted or strong feelings about events or others you’ve never fully expressed.
Psychologist James Pennebaker explained it this way: writing honestly and openly about how you feel can be a bit like the experience of seeing a sad movie. You come out of the theatre feeling bad; maybe you even cried during the film. But you’re wiser. You understand the character’s issues and struggles in a way, perhaps that you didn’t when the movie began. It is in the expression of those feelings of sorrow or anger that you are able to stand back, re-read and examine what you’ve written. That’s often when you begin to understand the sources of your pain or anger better than you might have before. There is relief in that realization, and with it, the possibility for greater insight..
Writing offers us the opportunity to “think to” another, whether it is yourself, your body, or someone with whom you have unresolved issues. Imagining another and addressing your writing to that person encourages you to write naturally. Even if you never show it or send it to anyone, writing to an imagined other has the effect of making your words more powerfully felt. What’s more, you can say what you really want to say.
In poetic terms, there’s a figure of speech called an “apostrophe,” in which someone absent or dead, or even an object or abstract idea, is addressed directly. Examples can be found in Walt Whitman’s poem to the dead Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!,” in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem, “God’s World,” which begins “O World, I cannot hold thee close enough…” or Kenneth Koch’s “To My Heart as I Go Along.”
Unsent letters are a more common form of saying what we really want to say. Whether during cancer or at other challenging times in our lives, all of us may experience the need to release the unspoken, to cleanse or reach out to another, whether living or dead, person or thing. An unsent letter can be a tool to help express difficult or complicated feelings that might otherwise might never be expressed or fully understood.
President Abraham Lincoln often resorted to what he called “a hot letter,” piling all his anger into a note, then put it aside until his emotions had calmed down, labeling the letter “Never sent. Never signed” (New York Times, 2014),
In “Letter, Much Too Late,” Pulitzer Prize winning author Wallace Stegner addressed his dead mother. Stegner was close to his mother, who always tried to protect him from his father, even though she was rendered helpless in the face of her husband’s abusive personality. While he was a graduate student, Stegner’s mother died from breast cancer. He nursed her in her final days and sat at her side as she took her last breath. “Letter, Much Too Late” was written fifty-five years after her death. In it, he remembers her, asks for forgiveness and remembers her as a mother with enduring love for her son. He writes:
“In the more than fifty years I have been writing books and stories, I have tried several times to do you justice, and have never been satisfied with what I did. . . .I am afraid I let your selfish and violent husband, my father, steal the scene from you and push you into the background in the novels as he did in life. Somehow I should have been able to say how strong and resilient you were, what a patient and abiding and bonding force, the softness that proved in the long run stronger than what it seemed to yield to.” (In: Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, by Wallace Stegner, 1992)
I have used the “unsent letter” exercise many times in my workshops, but one time in particular stands out. A few years ago, G., who had only just received the news earlier that week that her cancer had spread and was terminal, used the unsent letter exercise to write to her doctor, who had cared for her throughout her ten-year journey with metastatic breast cancer. She shared her the letter she’d written aloud with the group. It was strong and beautifully written, acknowledging how hurt and alone she’d felt when her doctor couldn’t even look her in the eyes as he conveyed what amounted to a certain death sentence. After she read her letter aloud, several group members had tears in their eyes. G. did too, but she said, “I feel better now. It’s helped just to write down what I felt, even if I’m not going to send it to him.”
That’s the beauty of the form of the unsent letter. It allows you to express difficult emotions on paper, safely, and release them from your mind and body. Once you’ve written such a letter, it’s good to set it aside, then a day or two later, re-read it, noting what stands out. It’s a way of learning from what you’ve written—gaining new insights, greater clarity or understanding—all without the need or risk of sending it to the person to whom we’ve written. Yet, in G.’s case, she took her unsent letter one step further.
At the next group meeting, we all noticed how smiling and radiant she appeared, and once we were seated, she told us she had taken her “unsent” letter to her follow-up appointment and read it aloud to her doctor. It was a real act of courage, but happily, it resulted in positive exchange between her doctor and her. She described how visibly moved he was after she finished reading, and then admitting that he had struggled to tell her the results of her tests—the news no one wants to hear. He admitted he did not trust himself to keep his composure when he gave conveyed the latest test results. He apologized to G. and thanked her for having sharing her letter with him. It had proved to be a healing moment between doctor and patient, restoring the trust and understanding between them.
- Try writing an unsent letter to someone or something. You might write to a loved one, a physician, a higher power, your body or even cancer. Write with the assurance that you can say what is honestly in your heart and mind, that no one ever needs to see or hear what you have written. What do you really want to say?
- Once you’ve written your letter, put it aside for a day or two. Then re-read it. Underline what stands out most for you. Have your feelings changed in any way? What insights have you gained?