Letters to Heal
Recently, I met with Elizabeth Cunningham, founder of Loss Letters, a weekly email series about grief, community and way finding. Much of our conversation focused on the power of letters and how universal letter writing is. No matter the culture, no matter the religion, no matter the race, we write letters, we receive letters. we read letters and we love letters.
I told her about a tradition in the Lubavitch world of visiting the Rebbe’s Grave, writing a letter, reading it and than ripping it up. I became more connected to this tradition when shortly after my mother’s death, I came across a letter that she wrote to the Rebbe. Traditionally, once a letter is written and read at the grave of the Rebbe, you rip it up and it no longer exists. But my mom typed her letter and saved a few copies. She loved copies.
Upon discovering what felt like a very intimate piece of my mom, it took me time to decide whether or not I felt it was appropriate to read her letter.
I waited and waited and consulted my Rabbi. At the 1 year anniversary of my mom’s death, I read it. As my eyes slowly made their way down the page, I could hear her address the Rebbe in her slight Staten Island accent. I could hear her explaining the intricacies of her illness, tracing it back from when she was first diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma to the incredible science that was being used to get her though the bone marrow transplant from her brother. She named cell types and procedures, tissues and skin abrasions. She gave the Rebbe the most detailed description of her illness imaginable. It wasn't the illness that defined my mom in her letter, rather it was her matter of fact explanation of the science, her acceptance and almost gratitude for the situation, and her lack of anger and blame for the cards she had been dealt.
As I turned the page and began reading her prayers, I was both shocked and not shocked at all. She asked that her husband be successful in his business, that her daughters find true love and grounding and that her doctors and nurses remain happy and healthy.
Nowhere in the letter did she ask for her health to return. Nowhere did she ask for more life.
My mom, a physician, was acutely aware of her body and her illness. She knew that she was dying.
My mom, a planner, was also aware of how much our family relied on her and the chaos her death would bring.
My mom, a holy woman, knew that through praying for others, she would be healed.
Pain, grief and any trauma are isolating experiences. Afterall, no one can actually feel our pain. No one can ever truly understand what we are going through. But trauma, just like love, is universal. Pain, just like joy, is universal. If we don’t use our pain to help others and ultimately help ourselves, the pain will win. If we dive into our pain and use it to connect and inspire others, we win. Being in pain is one thing, living in pain is another.
Ever since finding my mom’s letter, the content of my own letters has changed. I now pray for my family, for my friends and for my community. As I write for others, I feel more present in the world and more connected to the pain and to the joy of others.
I am continually coming out of My Grief shell into the Greater Grief Shell.
My mom knew the difference between living and healing and may we all be blessed to know it as well. After all, to this day, I continue to see her prayers being answered....
PS: I am grateful to say that the Creative Healing Collective and Loss Letters will be collaborating on a workshop in August. Stay tuned!