The Words I Couldn’t Say: How a Single Letter Helped Me Heal


He was a mentor in our church, and I looked up to him like a father. He’d told me I was like a daughter to him. I thought he’d always be there for me. But when a conflict divided our church while I was away at college, he didn’t help me navigate the mess. He let me down.

By the time the semester ended, my family had found a new church. But with the dramatic change, I didn’t have anywhere I belonged.

When he stayed in a place where I no longer felt welcome, I took it as a personal rejection. Choosing them must mean he didn’t choose me.

I was devastated, but it seemed ridiculous to be so affected by the shakeup when I didn’t really even live there anymore. Others had been hurt more deeply by the situation—how dare I diminish their pain by claiming to have my own?

Ashamed of my feelings, I spent years pretending I was fine. I hid the panic I had to fight down every time I entered a church. I held friends at arm’s length—they couldn’t break my heart if I never let them touch it. I shoved my hurt and confusion down and covered them over with anger, making my former mentor a symbol of the entire situation and the focus of my blame.

There was no apparent animosity between us on the rare occasions we ran into each other, but our old friendliness and familiarity were absent as well. Our brief conversations never went deeper than pointless small talk and I was crushed by his seeming lack of interest in my life.

In an online workshop during The Gift Of Writing journaling course Claire De Boer introduced the journaling tool of the unsent letter—a letter to a person or entity with whom you have unfinished business. Writing a letter we’ll never send is a safe way to truthfully express our thoughts and emotions for catharsis and clarity. Even before Claire finished explaining the exercise, I knew I’d finally found an outlet for my thoughts and feelings about my relationship with one who had once claimed me as a daughter.

As we started the 20-minute writing portion of the workshop, the scratching of my pen across the page was the only sound intruding on the stillness of my living room. My mind, however, was anything but quiet. All my bottled-up thoughts and feelings pushed and shoved, scrambling over each other to find a place on my page, determined to finally have their say.

The first tear plopped down, blurring the words abandon me, as I finally admitted how entirely alone I’d felt all those years. I relived interactions that had left me feeling unseen and unwanted. I blamed him for not trying hard enough, because it was easier to find fault in him than to risk facing my fear that I wasn’t worthy of belonging and being known.

Not even close to finished with my letter when the workshop session ended, I stayed hunched over my journal for most of the afternoon. Finally the voices that had been silenced for years all felt heard and I set down my pen, exhausted.

But it wasn’t over yet. Claire suggested a follow up to the exercise—writing letters back to ourselves from the perspective of the other person.

I didn’t want to write a letter back to myself from him. I’d already imagined and dismissed any feeble excuse he might try to offer for why he hadn’t been there for me. I hid behind my contempt, terrified of the questions that hadn’t yet been answered—did he even care that I was hurting? Did anyone care? Did God? Was I worth caring about?

What if the answer was no?

Not wanting to leave the exercise half finished, I wrote the letter anyway. I’m so glad I did. The words that flowed from my pen weren’t what I’d expected at all. Yes, I had thought about his side of the situation before, but until I wrote that letter back to myself I’d never truly put myself in his place.

When I finally looked through his eyes, I realized that maybe the change in our interactions didn’t mean he didn’t care. Sometimes situations are just awkward. Maybe he simply didn’t know how to respond.

How could he know what I needed when I insisted I was fine? Maybe he wished I’d told him. I don’t know for sure what he would really say, but in daring to question whether I was worthy of care—in daring to risk the no—I opened myself up to the possibility of yes.

In my mind I’d divided us into villains and victims, but looking at the situation from a different perspective helped me see past my false dichotomies. Just because he still cared about them didn’t mean he’d stopped caring about me. Just because someone else was hurting didn’t mean I had no right to feel my own pain. Losing a place where I felt safe didn’t mean I’d never be safe again. We can love each other and hurt each other too.

Writing my unsent letter to him and his response back to me didn’t instantly restore our relationship or make my hurt disappear, but it was a step toward healing.

Sometimes I still feel anger swelling inside me, or find myself afraid to trust a friendship. And I still grieve the relationship we used to have. But writing those letters broke open the shame that trapped my feelings deep inside. Now I’m more willing to acknowledge my emotions and bring them to my journal where I can safely ask what they still have left to teach me. Those difficult feelings aren’t failings, but guideposts showing me where there is more healing to unearth and lessons to learn.

Your turn

Do you have unfinished business with someone or something? Would you be open to writing them an unsent letter and looking deep into your heart to discover what their response might be?