In March of 2009, I set out to begin my letter-collecting journey. Deeply touched by the sudden death of actress Natasha Richardson and the media coverage that ensued, I was plagued with overwhelming emotions about unexpectedly losing a loved one. I was particularly concerned with Natasha’s husband and two boys — I kept wondering what they might have wanted to say to her if they could have one last conversation, one last exchange of “I love you”s, one last time to say everything they appreciated and admired about her. While we can always hope that special person knows how we feel, life oftentimes gets in our way of telling or showing someone the degree to which they are needed and loved. I wanted to dig deeper into why that was — why we let so many important conversations go unspoken — and if these “final words” ever crossed the minds of others.
I immediately began giving presentations around my community, posing the idea to others and encouraging a response. I called it “The Things You Would Have Said.” I traveled to third grade classrooms and activity groups at retirement homes with the intent of gathering stories from as many ages and backgrounds as I could muster. After explaining my inspiration for the project, I asked people to write a letter to someone saying something they had always wanted to say but never did. I so desperately wanted to ignite this conversation in everyone around me, whether it addressed a person that had passed away or an issue with someone in their lives today. I was willing to wait as long as I needed for others to feel comfortable sharing their deepest thoughts, regrets and unanswered questions with a then 23-year-old, wide-eyed and unknowing stranger.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long. Within days of presenting to groups — and even minutes with some — I was handed letters written to former bullies and cancer-stricken parents. I learned about a father of a 9-year-old girl who drank so much that it scared her. I was welcomed into the home of a wife without a husband, a husband who killed himself in their garage and left himself hanging for her to find. I sat in on a man’s memory of a former high school flame, wistfully wishing they could reconnect. People fervently shared what had been weighing on their hearts for days, months, even years. And all I had to do was ask.
As the number of letter submissions grew, I started to post one each day on a website, www.wouldhavesaid.com and many letters were now being sent via email. In doing so, my identity lessened even more. Nobody saw what I looked like or heard my voice. No one knew my age, no one asked for my credentials or a business card and no one doubted me when I assured them their names and emails would not be shared on the internet. They trusted me. They had so many thoughts and emotions aching to be purged that I earned their trust simply because I was anxiously waiting to listen. I was there, ready and willing to give support. One of the many things I’ve learned from this project is that people not only need someone there to listen, but they need someone there who wants to listen.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one who wants to listen. As I post letters on the site, readers across the world are captivated by them, wanting to know more about the writers and how they can help. They give cyber-hugs and openly let writers know how intensely they can relate. Though I can’t help but wonder why it’s easier for us to confide in the faceless Internet, all while we suppress feelings and retract from those we love and see every day, I see this process as a stepping stone. A support group. A drawing board where people can bounce ideas off one another and offer advice on how to deal with difficult situations. And for those who have lost beyond repair, it’s a place to find solace and lean on each other for support.
Do you have things left unsaid in your own life? Write them down. Allow yourself to take that moment and tend to your own needs. You deserve the attention, and your feelings shouldn’t be left unnoticed. More importantly, share them. Tell a loved one if you can, or find a caring newcomer. It is often the case that your confidant is going through a similar internal struggle, perhaps even worse. Comfort each other. By sharing our stories, we can inspire one another with our strength.
Always remember that what you have to say is worthy. It doesn’t matter how much time has gone by or what stage of the process you “should” be passing through. People want to hear about what you’re dealing with right now, even it if means tangling with cobwebs or making extra room for baggage. Believe that people want you as part of their community. Ask them to be part of yours.
“The Things You Would Have Said” project has been a much needed reminder that the world isn’t always as cold as it may feel at times, and you are not alone. Each moment I receive a letter from someone courageously sharing what they would have said, their confession serves as an offering, an extension of themselves: “This is me. This is what I’m going through.” And each letter that follows is an example of the universal reply that lies within all of us: “Me too.”
To read what others would have said and to submit a letter of your own, please visit www.wouldhavesaid.com
Ever wish for one more day with someone you lost? Learn what one woman is doing to help people release their thoughts on paper