“There is something very sensual about a letter.
The physical contact of pen to paper, the time set aside to form thoughts,
the folding of the paper into the envelope, licking it closed, addressing it, a chosen stamp, and then the release of the letter to the mailbox—are all acts of tenderness. Once opened, a connection is made. We are not alone in the world.”
—Tempest Williams (1991, p. 84)
Monday saw us write our two hundred and sixty fifth letter to Orla. Although not necessarily a significant number, it is one that marks a countdown of 100 days until her first birthday and that this is now into double instead of triple figures. It marks two hundred and sixty-five days since the day that she was born; the day that we officially became parents and met the most precious and beautiful little girl we had ever seen. Two hundred and sixty-five days of breathing, surviving and navigating life without Orla; of being bereaved parents and finding a way of parenting without our child. Developing an identity that acknowledges the gravity of what we have lived through, and continue to live through, whilst also looking to develop a narrative of hope, optimism and meaning.
It was the first morning we woke up at home, the day after Orla’s birthday, that I decided to start writing her letters. I remember vividly, lying in bed looking across at the crib and feeling a sense of emptiness that terrified me. It was as though the edges of my being had blurred, as if I didn’t quite know whether I even existed anymore. I could see myself, but I couldn’t quite believe that I was there, that this was my reality, and that there was absolutely no way of changing it. I felt as though someone had carved out every piece of my being, and the physical emptiness, my loose torso, just served as a concrete reminder of how my life had been ripped apart. I honestly could not comprehend in that moment how, or if, I would survive. The closeness of having carried Orla for nine whole months, having her with me, within me, twenty-four hours a day, had suddenly evaporated. She wasn’t in the crib next to me. She wasn’t in the next room. She wasn’t even in a hospital ward where I could go and visit. She was gone and never coming back.
I had a desperate need to claw back some degree of closeness to my baby, to find a way of channelling that innate mothering instinct. Despite the emptiness, I was full of overwhelming love and a desire to nurture and protect my baby. Yet I had no baby to pour this into. So, I decided to write to Orla. To tell her how much I loved her, how much I missed her, how much I adored carrying her and how much I wanted to share my life with her.
And so, Dear Orla was born.
I showed Andy my first letter, written on a private Instagram account with a photo of him holding Orla less than twenty-four hours before. He loved the idea and asked if he could also be included. And every single say since, without fail, we have taken it in turns to take a photo and write a letter to Orla. Questions such as ‘whose day is it today?’ and ‘what photo are you using’ are now some of the most frequently asked in our house.
I noticed the number creeping up to 265 a couple of weeks ago and started thinking about the actual process of writing to Orla and why we do it. Why it is so important that we have never missed a day. I hadn’t really thought about the emotional and psychological functions the letters serve since it was something that we started at a time when thinking wasn’t possible. When we acted on a hormonal, emotional, instinctive desire to feel close to our daughter. And it is only now that I have really taken a step back to reflect on the process of letter writing and how this can help in grieving.
I often use letters a lot as part of my therapeutic work as a psychologist. I write letters to clients at the end of therapy and at various intervals in between when needed. If someone misses a session, I will write to them to curiously enquire why they were unable to attend. I offer tentative hypotheses based on what we might have spoken about the previous week and I express my feelings about this: sadness, regret, hope that they may return and offering apologies if I feel that I may have not understood, contained or supported them in the way they needed. When we finish our work together, I will write a summary of our sessions, of what I hope they have learnt and gained, but also what I have learnt from them. In therapeutic relationships such as these, it can often feel like a one way street – the client tells you everything about themselves and you offer very little of yourself. Therefore, any opportunity that I have to give something of myself back, within the boundaries of the therapeutic model I may be working in, feels really important.
I also get clients to write letters as part of their therapy; to loved ones, to those that have hurt or harmed them in some way and to themselves – the parts of themselves that they want to change, or the aspects that they wish to nurture, show compassion towards and grow.
But what function do these letters serve?
Letters are actually used in many different therapeutic modalities and all would have a slightly different take on why and what for, but overall they seem to support clients in continuing to make meaning beyond the confines of the therapy room. They summarise thoughts, feelings and processes and they seek to support change. Letters enable you to stand back and gain perspective, creating space for thoughts and emotions outside of sessions. They also allow you to express the unspoken, particularly if the letter is not to be shared.
It is possible to write a whole thesis on this subject, but for now, I just wanted to take a moment to think briefly about what Dear Orla has actually facilitated for us on our journey of grief thus far:
- From an attachment and psychodynamic perspective, letters can be seen as a way of ‘holding’ a client; of demonstrating that you are attuned to them and that you are a solid, reliable and trustworthy caregiver, in much the same way that a good enough parent does for their own child. So, our letter writing is a way of showing Orla that she is held in mind, that we think of her and that she is part of us every single day, despite her not being with us physically.
- In schema focussed therapy, letters can be used as way to process strong emotions, to identify, name and work through them in a way that can be impossible within ones own mind. Sometimes things just feel too overwhelming and there is so much going on that I just need to tell Orla how I’m feeling. That I miss her, that I love her and that I wish things could have been different. That I am sorry that I couldn’t protect her and that I will carry the pain of this responsibility for the rest of my life. Sometimes, all I need to do is let it out and to feel like she may in some way understand.
- Narrative therapy suggests that we make meaning of our lives through telling our stories. Often there can be a dominant narrative, and through the therapeutic relationship and telling the stories of your life, you look to develop and strengthen alternatives. The aim is to ensure that there are positive and strength focussed narratives, even amongst the most extreme pain and trauma. We so desperately want to ensure that Orla’s story is not one only of sadness and devastation. We want her story, and ours to also include hope and light alongside the darkness. To include hope, positivity and meaning for the future. And of course love. Ours is a true love story.
Letters are multifaceted in their meaning and purpose, therapeutically and otherwise. But knowing that they mean more than just offloading brings me comfort. Dear Orla is our way of holding Orla in our minds and hearts, it helps us to process the many complicated and overwhelming emotions that come with grieving. But most of all, it is our way of loving and parenting Orla without her in our arms.