What do you do if you want to write a tribute legacy letter to your parent, but he or she is not the perfect parent?
After all, do parents like June and Ward Cleaver, the parents of Beaver and Wally from the TV show, Leave it to Beaver, even exist?
Perhaps, but I certainly never even met anyone like them! Maybe they are caricatures of “good” parents. Most of us fit somewhere between June and Ward and the incompetent but good-natured cartoon character Dad, Homer Simpson. However, some parents stray beyond the normal curve and are physically or emotionally abusive.
One of my blog followers contacted me and asked “How do I write a tribute letter to my mother when she severely abused me?” That got me thinking.
More than a few of my students in my legacy letter writing classes come from homes with an alcoholic parent (or two!) We collectively went through a process to help those students complete and share their legacy letters and to feel much better as a result. One student told me the class was more therapeutic than counseling and less expensive to boot!
So how were my students helped? Here are suggestions based on my experiences teaching legacy letter writing classes.
The first step is to embrace the reality that there is no such thing as a perfect parent. In most cases, the abusive or neglectful parent was doing the best he or she could. It is likely they came from an abusive or neglectful home themselves and, for that reason, had genetic predispositions towards abuse and neglect.
This is not to excuse their behavior. Let me repeat: I don’t think you should excuse abusive behavior because of environmental or hereditary factors. Still, understanding your parent as an individual is the second step to writing a constructive, not destructive, letter.
Once you come to terms with the negative influences on your parent and can accept him or her as an imperfect parent and individual, you are ready for the third step to writing your legacy letter.
The third step is realizing that this letter is more for your benefit than theirs. It’s about your healing. If the letter improves your relationship with your parent, that’s a bonus.
Once you have taken the 3 preliminary steps, you are ready to write your legacy letter. Please check out these sample legacy letters for inspiration.
I would start out explaining both why you are writing this letter, and why you are not writing this letter.
Clarify, that the letter is not about blaming or criticizing your parent. Explain how you think your childhood helped you become a better person or parent. This section should not be trite – I made “lemons out of lemonade,” but it should rather be specific.
If you can take on the Buddhist philosophy that everything is neutral – what is “good” can have negative elements and what is “bad” can have positive elements. Then meditate on the positive consequences of your upbringing and share that with your parent in the letter.
Share some favorite memories you might have. They do not have to be grandiose memories or memories directly associated with your parent. They can be as small as the smell of the flowers around your home (whether your parent tended to them or not!)
If possible, describe any positive traits of your parent. Write your hopes and wishes for him or her. If you can express empathy and understanding, that’s an indication that you are healing. You may even be healing the relationship. Depending on the circumstances, you might want to offer an invitation to talk or to visit.
The last and most important step to writing a letter to your parent is to have a trusted friend or family member read your letter before you send it.
It is not uncommon to subconsciously sneak in guilt-inducing sentences or words. Let this trusted person help you edit the letter, so it is truly written from your internal strength and a place of forgiveness. I am always available to you as a consultant in any aspect of your legacy letter journey.
You are a strong person, strong enough to write and share this letter with your imperfect parent now. If you do this you can go forward in your life with the confidence that nothing you needed to say to your parent has been left unsaid.
You have released yourself from the strangling effect of bad memories that could otherwise have haunted you after your parent has died. You have taken a giant step towards emotional freedom!
If you would like some help with writing a legacy letter, please get in touch with me.
What do you think is the hardest thing about writing a legacy letter? Which aspect of the writing process do you think you would need the most help with? Organizing your thoughts? Writing? Editing? Something else? Please join the conversation.