Leaving a legacy of love
Letter writing helps hospice residents share their final words
October 7, 2019
By Brenton Driedger, Social Media and Storytelling Advisor, Covenant Health
About once a month, Katherine Butler rereads her husband’s final words.
Rob Butler died nearly two years ago at the age of 58, 13 months after being diagnosed with a brain tumour. Before his death, he put together a legacy letter he could leave behind for his family.
That letter still brings them solace.
“It’s healing. It kind of brings life to him again,” says Katherine.
Katherine asked Rob whether he wanted to leave behind a letter after it was suggested by Lisa Andrews, a Social Worker at Dulcina Hospice at St. Marguerite Manor. Rob was hesitant at first, but he decided to give it a try.
“I think he felt that he was giving something to us that we could cherish,” says Katherine. “It was an autobiography gift of love to those of us left behind.”
Katherine says the letter recounted Rob's life, including how his family was not able to put him through university, so he found a job and started taking university courses on the side. Rob spent much of his career as a water and wastewater specialist. He was often headhunted because of his excellence and he was regularly asked to lead projects, including a reclamation job in Australia.
“He was very good at what he did. Very dedicated, whether it was work or family,” says Katherine.
Lisa started helping Dulcina Hospice residents make legacy letters three years ago. She has a master's in social work with a focus in grief, end of life and family therapy. Lisa says the letters help people reflect at the end of their lives and make a lasting record of things they want to say to their loved ones. It becomes a treasured keepsake for many, who are able to revisit the letters over the years.
“It’s a connection to their loved one every time they pick up that letter,” says Lisa. “It allows (the resident) to say, ‘I know that I have my words documented, that my family can read them after I’m gone.’ And they get a lot of comfort in that.”
When a resident decides to make a letter, Lisa sits down with them for two or three interviews, recording their responses and using their words, and works with the resident to compose a letter. Then the resident decides how to share it with their family. Those requests vary from sharing it at the bedside right after the resident has died to reading it at their funeral.
Lisa says people can be hesitant at first, but she’s never had anyone stop the process. One woman was so eager to start that Lisa didn’t need to ask any of her reflection questions. As soon as Lisa started her recorder, the woman started talking.
“Everyone who writes a legacy letter finds it very emotional, and they almost always cry,” says Lisa. “They comment that it helps them get things off their chest, it helps them process what is happening and also provides an opportunity to reflect on and document their life.”
Katherine describes Rob as a private person who was accomplished in his profession but “didn’t like to toot his own horn.” His motivation for making the letter was to share his life with his son, daughter and two granddaughters, “the love of his life.” But Katherine believes Rob also benefited from reflecting on his own achievements and talking about difficult childhood experiences.
“It made him remember and value all those accomplishments he had made throughout his life. I think he felt proud,” says Katherine. “I really thought that made him feel validated and allowed forgiveness to others.”
Lisa says offering forgiveness and saying “I’m sorry” are common themes, especially with families who have had struggles. She observes people saying things directly to their loved ones once they’ve had the chance to say them indirectly in an interview, like the husband who, after recording his feelings on paper, became comfortable sharing his emotions directly with his wife.
“All of a sudden, now he will cry in front of her. All of a sudden, now he can take her hand and say, ‘I really love you and I want you to know that before I go.’”
The letters are special for close families, too. One woman in her 80s wanted Lisa to surprise her family with her letter after she died. It was a single page in which she simply reminded them she loved them. Shortly after the woman died, Lisa happened to stop at the hospice after hours. The whole family was still at the woman’s bedside and Lisa read them the letter.
“It was just beautiful. They held each other, they cried. It was a precious gift.”
Katherine found it difficult to read Rob’s letter at first and put it away for a while. Now she returns to it regularly, remembering with fondness their nearly 40 years together.
“This person who shared his life with me, these are his words. It makes it feel like he’s with you.”