Big benefits come from unsent letters

Right now I’m struggling to compose a letter to someone dear to me. Although I expect to mail something eventually, I know my first drafts are just practice and exploration. I will discard them after I find the right words. Each of my drafts is an “Unsent Letter” to help me compose my thoughts.

In Journal to the Self: 22 Paths to Personal Growth, Kathleen Adams writes that Unsent Letters are one of the most popular and widely used journal techniques.

“Unsent Letters are wonderful for expressing deep emotion, such as anger or grief… for gaining closure and insight. And they are an effective way of communicating your opinions, deepest feelings, hostilities, resentments, affections, or controversial points of view in a safe, nonthreatening atmosphere.”

Knowing these letters will not be delivered gives permission and freedom to write every thought that comes to mind, bypassing internal censors. It’s a great way to release strong emotions, but you’ll need a plan for disposing of these tirades—shredding, burn- ing, flushing them, or burying them in a compost pile.

Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N. C., offers training and research in mind- body-spirit practices including Expressive Writing. Leaders,

James Pennebaker and John Evans, authors of

Expressive Writing: Words that Heal, describe ways in which expressive writing can overcome traumas and emotional upheavals, resolve issues, improve health, and build resilience.

They advise, “If your writings would not clearly benefit the person you wrote to, don’t send them.” Instead of continuing to vent frustration, anger, or pain, they recommend writing one of three kinds of letters: The Compassionate

Letter, sharing your positive experience; The Empathetic Letter, trying to understand the other person; or The Gratitude

Letter, describing the gift, skill, or inspiration received from knowing the recipient. “Writing the letter, even without sending it, is all you need to do to help yourself,” they say.

Many Unsent Letters are positive. Therapists and clergy suggest writing Unsent Letters to deceased loved ones. Even though you are no longer able to speak directly, asking questions and expressing emotions can bring relief from pain and bring closure.

Members in my groups for women in prison suggested more. One said, “When I came here I forgot how to pray. Instead I began writing a letter to God every day.” She said eventually her letter writing practice taught her how to pray again.

Another woman described the prison chaplain’s practice of asking each person to write a on special paper provided to them. On it they wrote to anyone who had hurt them. When completed, each dropped her written words into a bowl of water and watched as it dissolved. At that moment, she said she felt a heavy burden being lifted.

Claire Willis, author of Lasting Words: A Guide to Finding Meaning

Toward the Close of Life reports that “Writing reduces reactivity and increases the likelihood of a gentle response.”

She advises writing your own Ethical Will, a story in which you share parts of yourself unknown to others. “Your Values are not just valuables!”

Your Ethical Will can include:

• Stories of others who light a flame in you.

• Descriptions of turning points in your life— when and how and from whom you learned life lesson.

• A list of 10 souvenirs you would save if you suddenly had to leave your home and why you would choose them.

• Expressions of love, gratitude, and forgiveness.

• Your core values that guide your life.

After naming and describing your values, offer each in the form of a blessing.

• May you find …

• May you come to know …

• May you be blessed by ….

In 1998, I attended workshops at the Summer Iowa Writer’s Festival. At first I was unable to come up with a single phrase or sentence. To bypass writer’s block, I wrote Unsent Letters to my sister describing my frustration and confusion. These letters opened a place for my words to flow again.

My favorite workshop at that time was called, “By your Letters They Will Know You.” Participants worked over several days writing a single letter, with help from the instructor and fellow students.

My letter was addressed to my future grandchildren, six years before any were born. I wrote about my life at the end of 20th Century and how I was anticipating the new millennium. I shared my wishes for them and offered five aphorisms I hoped would be helpful. This Unsent Letter is still in the self- addressed envelope in which it was put. Letters written from the heart with purpose seem to have magical powers. Perhaps it’s time to share this letter with my five grandchildren.

Susan Hendricks leads guided journal writing groups in Columbia as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Journal Therapist and is an instructor for The Writing Institute, The Center for Journal Therapy’s online educational platform. Find more at or

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