What do I write in a letter to a terminally ill former high school teacher?
February 13, 2009 3:14 PM   Subscribe

What do I write in a letter to a terminally ill former high school teacher?

A former teacher of mine is terminally ill, and I would like to write her a letter.

I had this teacher only for a one semester elective six years ago in high school, but we kept a friendly rapport in the halls whenever I would see her. She's also a friend of my mother's, who works at the school. She was diagnosed with ALS about two years ago, and has since retired from teaching and moved across the country to live with family.

I really have no idea what I'm supposed to say in correspondence like this. This woman is brilliant, with an astounding amount of knowledge on the most ridiculously esoteric subjects, but to be honest she wasn't that great of a teacher, mostly because she was so disorganized and lax and students frequently took advantage of her (so to say something like, "You were one of the best teachers I ever had" feels kind of dishonest). But I did find conversing with her out of the classroom frequently fascinating and inspiring and I want to acknowledge that not all learning takes place inside the classroom.

I haven't seen her since her diagnosis, so I'm not sure if I should mention her illness or not, or how to avoid being macabre (because it's pretty clear this is a letter I wouldn't otherwise send if she weren't sick, I'm worried about it reading like a eulogy in the second person, if that makes sense).

Any advice for how to approach this with the proper amount of sympathy and tact?
posted by cosmic osmo to Human Relations (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"You were one of the best teachers I ever had"

You may also want to be careful with your use of the past tense.
posted by 517 at 3:18 PM on February 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pick one thing she taught you that you remember to this day. Something that latter turned out to be useful for you in a situation, where the information allowed you to be successful. Tell her about it.

"Hey, remember that time when you said X? I always remembered it, and Y days ago, I was talking to this person, and X came up, and I remembered you said about X was that it meant you also needed Z, and then we..."

This is what all teachers really want, that their students take the info they give them and then go out and use it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:20 PM on February 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've done this, written a letter to someone who was terminally ill who I was fairly certain I'd never see again. It was stressful and the worst part was not knowing for the longest time whether it had gotten to her "in time"

Mine was about a page long, mentioned that I had heard the latest news about her health and wanted to take this opportunity to tell her what a positive and lasting influence she had been and continued to be on my life. Some generalities and a few specifics especially "I will always think of you when ...."

The next toughest part was not ending it with "talk to you soon" or "get better!" because both of those were flat out wrong. I wrapped it up basically sincerely saying that having her in my life when my nuclear family was falling apart was one of the few things that had kept me on a decent path at an otherwise challenging point in my life and I was eternally grateful for that. I included a photo.

Obviously she was someone a little closer in my life than your teacher was in yours but I think to many people, knowing that they've had an influence and that they are fondly remembered is a comfort when they're looking at end-of-life times. I wouldn't worry about sounding eulogistic, I'd just try to be honest and sincere and above all just SEND IT. Good luck, it's a nice thing you're doing.
posted by jessamyn at 3:25 PM on February 13, 2009 [7 favorites]

But I did find conversing with her out of the classroom frequently fascinating and inspiring and I want to acknowledge that not all learning takes place inside the classroom.

This is the key phrase. Teachers love the acknowledgement that in some small way, that they have impacted a student's life for the better. Follow up with a specific example of how your interactions with her changed you.

Sometimes a simple thanks is enough - it doesn't have to be a four-page dissertation.
posted by HeyAllie at 3:27 PM on February 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

Definitely don't worry about mentioning her illness; it's not like she has forgotten about it. Don't dwell on it, though. I also want to emphasize jessamyn's point about not saying "get well soon" or something similar; ALS is a horrible disease (I have a friend with it). This is definitely a good thing to do.
posted by TedW at 5:15 PM on February 13, 2009

I don't think anyone here can tell you what to write, because as cheesy as it sounds, we don't know what is in your heart. And that, whatever it is, is exactly what you need to write. I understand the feeling of, "Holyshit what if I get this wrong?!" We're talking about a dying person and their potential last memory of you. That can get weighty.

Before responding to your question I pulled up the letter I wrote my high school band director before he died in 2007. To date, he has been the most influential adult in my life. Were there things in that letter that I would change today? Absolutely. But does that mean that the letter was in any way "wrong?" Absolutely not.

When I finally sat down, and got over myself and my grief long enough to write him a letter, he was already very close to death. Something about the urgency of the situation helped me write the letter. After years of telling myself that, "He knows how important he is to me," I could no longer risk that assumption being wrong. And I had no time to mince words or select the best phrases.

I don't want to clutter up your AskMe with my letter, but if you're interested in seeing it, I'd be happy to share it with you. It might make you feel less like you are at risk of committing some great faux pas.
posted by greekphilosophy at 8:14 PM on February 13, 2009

Don't mention her illness unless you have something you want to say about it. She knows she's ill and is probably way, way past little ettiquette breaches about it. She'll be glad you wrote, and she's not going to be offended if you avoid the unhappy subject.
posted by scarabic at 1:12 AM on February 14, 2009

Thank you all for your answers.

I spent the last week ruminating on what to say and getting caught up in the minutiae of my own daily life, figuring that I'd just write the letter when I had some time and I'd figured out exactly the right things to say.

I never got the chance--she passed away this weekend, and I really wish that I'd just written something, anything, even if it wasn't perfect.

If anyone finds this thread in the future and is in a similar situation--just write the letter.
posted by cosmic osmo at 2:02 PM on February 21, 2009

It is not too late to write a letter to her family, expressing the kind of sentiments you have expressed here. My father was an educator and died 10 years ago; every once in awhile I will run into a former student or colleague of his and they will have an anecdote or two that I have never heard—it is the closest I get to still having him around. So you still have the opportunity to write a letter.
posted by TedW at 3:44 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

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