Life teaches us many valuable and difficult lessons. That tragedy doesn’t knock ranks among its most sobering. That we take our lives for granted — no matter how much we tell ourselves we don’t — also places high on the list. For these reasons, I recommend that regardless of your age, you write a goodbye letter to your family. In the event of your death without notice, people who love you will always appreciate and cherish it. Death without notice can be softened with a goodbye letter.
This week I would have been moving my father across the street from me. We had big plans. I was going to visit him daily, bring him food, and share more quality time. We never got the chance. Instead, I got a crash course in You Don’t Control Time. The phone rang when it wasn’t supposed to. A doctor summoned me to the hospital. He wouldn’t tell me what happened over the phone. I cried all the way there. I got the news. The world spun around me.
A few months earlier, my father had coincidentally given me a piece of paper with contact numbers on it. I put it in safe keeping and never read it. Feeling rudderless, I read it the day of the call. On the bottom of the paper, it read, “Worst case scenario, check the top drawer of my desk.” My heart sank.
I drove to my father’s home. I stood in front of his desk, afraid to open the drawer. I opened it. There was a large envelope with my sister’s name and my name on the front of it. I opened it. It contained everything we needed to know in the event of a tragedy. I can’t imagine how sad and difficult it must have been for him to write it.
On the top of the papers sat a letter my father had written to us. Nothing I ever read will be more heartfelt, beautiful, or meaningful. He told us how much he loved us, how much it meant to him to be our father, how proud he was and always will be of us, and asked us to promise to love and care for each other. He told us that we could visit the past from time to time but that we should not live in the past — an obvious expression of his concern that his passing would devastate us for too long. He was selfless and thinking of us to the end.
Through the hardest tears I’ve ever felt, I read his moving tribute to us. One phrase he wrote was especially kind. It epitomized his unconditional love for us. He wrote, “My children are my monument.” Has a parent ever said anything more impactful to their children? If we are his monument, he was our sculptor. And we will forever be grateful that we had the greatest privilege to be his children. I was his only son. He was my only father. We loved each other.
Losing my father without any notice was and remains brutal, devastating, debilitating, numbing, shocking, and sad beyond explanation. Had he not left his farewell note, it would have left us in an even deeper state of grief. We didn’t get to say goodbye but he did. And so, in doing so, perhaps we didn’t need to as much. It made a monumental difference. It continues to help guide us every day. I hope my father’s final act of bravery, generosity, and thoughtfulness inspires others to do the same. My Dad taught me the importance of writing thank you letters as a child. This was his last thank you letter. And he saved the best for last.
12 thoughts on “The Letter”
What a wonderful story. You have such a beautiful way with words.
I owe the story — and my life — to my Dad. Thank you.
I’ve been following your posts about your father for the past few days. Few things have moved me, touched me as much- ever.
Thanks you beyond words for sharing with your public
Extremely kind of you Ellen. My father kept me going throughout my life. I’m not surprised that he found a way to keep me going after his ended.
wow, incredible gift your dad left you, you are very lucky, not for the note alone but for the forethought that your dad had whne he wrote it..a special person in deed
theres one thing I always would say in bevreavement group (again, this is for cancer victims) is that as devastating cancer is , it does allow us all to say goodbye, sometimes all too slowly, but I found it to be a gift. On the other hand, my dads were taken from us in an instant, heart attacks and my brother was killed..no goodbyes..a hole that will never heal.
Thank you for sharing your story with us.
After considerable thought, I’ve concluded there really is no good ending. Notice allows us to say goodbye but long goodbyes can be emotionally and physically painful. No notice reduces suffering but leaves us frozen in time and in shock.
The best guidance I’ve read is to take the time to mourn — as much as needed, to share experiences, move through the stages of grief, and lean on the shoulders of loved ones.
My heart is with you. I understand.
In my humble and heartfelt opinion (after losing my mom a year and a half ago) – death just sucks, and it’s nothing like in the movies, and nothing prepares us, and nothing can ever be the same, and no matter what there is regret and unquenchabke sadness and grief, so much unbeatable grief.
I’m sorry to hear about your mother. There is all of that — but there is also potential for us to use tragedy to fuel us to even greater heights of doing good in the world. If we make that our goal — while still taking time to grieve — all is not lost.
I’ve so appreciated your sharing this chapter of your life. I lost my mother years ago very quickly and without warning. It stunned me. That is the best way I can describe it. I could hardly function right after and am tearing up now as I write this. I have always regretted that I hadn’t made one more call or one more visit, but it was not to be. But then I remember the love and bond between us, and I can let the regret go somewhat. The truth is, there will never be enough time or enough visits when it comes to someone who was that much a part of my life.
Thank you for your note. Never enough time, never enough visits, never enough said. You understand. Wishing you peace in the time ahead. No notice is very difficult.