How to write to someone who's dying?
October 4, 2009 6:16 AM   Subscribe

How do I write a thank-you card to a sister-in-law who is dying?

My ex's sister is dying from breast cancer at the young age of 50. It's all very harrowing and awful. She was wonderful to me and my ex when he had his own health crises and has continued to be generous and kind to me.

Now that her time here seems to be limited, I wanted to write and tell her how grateful I am for all she's done for me in the past. The problem is, I don't want to mention the fact - or allude to the fact - that she's in a bad way and this might be our last contact. I can't see a way round this in such a "thank you for all you've ever done" type communication. While I don't think she's in denial about what's happening, I don't want to be making it all sound so final. The aim is to be light and chatty yet I want to get in there that what she did for us was amazing.

Has anyone ever written a similar thing in similar circumstances?
posted by stenoboy to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps remember that we're all dying, so writing a thank you note to her is really not much different from writing one to anyone else. The fact that she has a better sense of her timeline is sort of moot, really.

Send her some some flowers and thank her for her generous spirit. Don't frame it as a lifetime achievement award.
posted by Hildegarde at 6:19 AM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

You could have written this note regardless of her current health status. So do it anyway. Just, hey, I was thinking about you the other day and wanted to thank you for all you've done for me and ex hubby, thank you for being there, etc." Write the note by hand on nice stationary. Send it. There is no downside to this.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:24 AM on October 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

She'll understand why you're writing it now whether you mention it or not. So allude to it, but then leave it aside.

It's a lovely idea.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:41 AM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've done this. The basic deal is do whatever you can or need to and SEND IT. Whatever you need to do to actually SEND it. People who are suffering from terminal illnesses rarely are in denial about that sort of thing themselves and having other people be a little more upfront about it is a good thing not a bad thing, at least that was my experience.

My suggestion: write a nice letter, handwritten, and just have a part where you're like "You know I don't know if I ever let you know just how wonderful what you did for us was..." or some variation. You don't have to be all gloom-and-doom about it if you don't want to [though it's a good idea to be realistic in your own head about it, so you don't end on a "see you soon" up note or something that might bother you]. I included a part in my letter where I said something like "I always think of you when..." which was true and I think also struck the right note. That I'd remember them and would be thinking about them now and in the future. I think without being too mudlin, telling someone that they've had a positive lasting effect on your life is a good message to pass on.
posted by jessamyn at 6:53 AM on October 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

Will you see your sister-in-law again? If you have any concrete plans to see her, perhaps ending the letter/card with "looking forward to seeing you at X" would remove any sense of finality, while still allowing you to express the sentiment.
posted by Kirn at 6:55 AM on October 4, 2009

I agree with jessamyn; whatever you do, send it. You'll always regret not telling her if you don't, and it will have a lot of meaning for her, I'll bet.

The nice thing about writing something is you can't do several drafts until you get the tone that you want, before writing her the version you're happiest with. And words on paper last longer than a phone call.
posted by Savannah at 6:56 AM on October 4, 2009

I second JohnnyGun, you begin with "I was thinking about you the other day and I remembered....." You can include details about what kicked off the memories (I saw a woman in the street who looked like you. I was using that vase you gave me.) and just take a trip down memory lane. People want to be remembered and they want to think they have had some impact on other people's lives, so this may become a very important and cherished letter. Keep it positive and remember that where there is life there is hope; don't bury her yet, but do write the letter now while she is able to enjoy it.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 6:59 AM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

My father's profession brought me into more and closer than usual contact with people's deaths in my community in my youth and my impression is that too often those outside the closest family avoid reaching out to the dying for precisely these kinds of reasons: because they don't know how to negotiate the fact or perhaps feel ashamed that they didn't make as much of an effort at contact before. And so the dying are denied contact and a chance to be told the impact they've had on others lives and the living miss their chance (forever) to tell someone how they felt.

I've sent letters to people who were dying with whom more direct contact wasn't possible or sensible and I have failed to send letters to people because their deaths caught me by surprise or because we had fallen out of touch and I only learned later and I'll let you guess which I feel regret over. You don't need to overthink the wording, obviously you needn't be blunt or tactless but your sister-in-law (to be blunt and tactless) is not likely to forget that she is dying. The inspiration to reach out is a noble one, follow it.
posted by nanojath at 7:00 AM on October 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

The problem is, I don't want to mention the fact - or allude to the fact - that she's in a bad way and this might be our last contact.

Why not? She knows she's dying and would love to be around skirt around that cold hard fact, but she can't.

Say your piece, say it without worrying about so much whether you should say x or y. Say it and send it. If you feel bad what you sent, then call her up and talk to her and have a conversation. It may be painful and awkward and any number of other things, but go ahead in the long wrong you're giving love and comfort to someone you care for and in the end, that'll mean so much to both of you.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:28 AM on October 4, 2009

Accept that the value (for you and for her) of telling her how much she has meant to you, far outweighs the discomfort (for you and for her) of acknowledging her impending death.
posted by jayder at 9:11 AM on October 4, 2009

Seconding BB above. Don't worry too much about how you say it. Include something along the lines of "thinking about you a lot lately, especially how generous you have always been with your time and kindness". Bluntness isn't necessarily cruel, insensitive, or tactless. And you do not need to allude to it being your last contact with her if you decide to try and call/see/write to her again in the near future. Up to a point you get to decide when your last contact with her will be.
posted by variella at 9:30 AM on October 4, 2009

How definite is it in her eyes that she's dying? People do make it through things, so I would kind of follow her lead. I mean, if she is openly accepting death, given up all treatments, getting her will in order, sort of thing, then there's no harm in being more straightforward about the purpose of your letter. If she is fighting to the end, remember that those 1% who survive are real people, so you seriously never know, and just go with the "thinking about you a lot lately" approach. Even people who will make it appreciate heart-to-heart communications when they're sick, so she wouldn't have to be dying for it to be appropriate to tell her how much she's meant.
posted by mdn at 11:51 AM on October 4, 2009

My best friend back home got a few of us to write to one of our junior high teachers -- a warm, funny, patient, and hugely funny man -- and I am thankful to this day that i got off my butt and wrote I just said I was reminded of him recently, and then said that I still remember him and respect him and am grateful for what he did for a room full of spoiled kids. No mention of his faling health or anything, just telling him what i thought he ought to have heard before.

No idea if he got it or read it or remembered me, but it felt like paying down a karmic debt.

Even if she doesn't see it, perhaps the family might and be comforted. I once went to see someone who I knew to be near death. He was so fuzzy from the meds that I doubt he recognied me, and his family seemed pretty frazzled. Perhaps if I'd instead written something that they could reflect on at leisure (since he didn't notice one way or the other) then it might have afforded them some comfort instead of the extra anxiety when I dropped by.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:21 AM on October 5, 2009

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