Death Letters?

Today’s post is about a rather morbid subject—death letters. Death letters, as the name implies, are letters intended to be read after the author’s death. Each year during June, which marks the end of the Australian Financial Year, I sit down and write a letter to each one of my children, which, in the event of my death, will allow me to communicate my love and advice to them. I see this process as an insurance policy. In the same way I maintain life insurance to financially provide for my family if I was to die today, I write death letters to provide for them emotionally.

However, the concern that today could be your last day is not the only reason why I write death letters. I, like everyone, hope to live a long and healthy life. I write death letters partly to hedge against unexpected death but also partly because I know that someday I will die. If that day is today, I am covered, but if that day comes 100 years from now, then my children will receive a treasure trove of letters spanning from when they were babies until my death. Each letter will give them glimpses of my love and affection for them over the years. I hope that these indelible records will speak to them and bring them comfort and advice once I am gone.

"Letter to the parents of David Hoyt from James F. Legate" by James F. Legate, American, 1829 - 1902 is marked with CC0 1.0
"Letter to the parents of David Hoyt from James F. Legate" CC0 1.0

Additionally, I find that the process is in itself helpful to me. The effort of sitting down and writing a letter to each one of them helps me to contemplate my own mortality and to reflect on who my children are becoming. If done right, it forces me to recognize their and my successes as well as where we have not done so great in the previous year. For instance, in one letter to my oldest son, I told him how proud I was of his efforts at school and lamented that we did not seem to be as close as we had been. This realization motivated me to make more of an effort to reconnect with him and helped our relationship to improve.

So, how should we go about writing a death letter? Well, I always start my letters with something to the effect of: “If you are reading this letter, then I am gone”. Before explaining why I have written this letter, saying: “I wrote this letter to tell you how much I love you and how important you are to me if I am not longer able to”. After this preamble, I talk to each of them about their qualities and the things they do that make me proud. I remind them of the things they struggle with and encourage them to work on them. I give them advice for the future and, most of all, tell them how much they mean to me.

These letters are generally short, often being about a page in length, but in them, I try to say everything that is essential. Some people may consider this to be a bit morbid, but I see this as a celebration of life and love. None of us know how long we will live for, but each one of us can act in ways that make the time we have worthwhile. By writing a death letter to our loved ones each year, we can ensure that we don’t leave the essential unsaid.

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