I was 23 years old when I created The Things You Would Have Said, and had never fully wrapped my head around coping with the death of a loved one. My Grandma died when I was nine years old, but I didn't speak often about my feelings and seemed to skip over certain parts of the grieving process. I think my lack of personal experience, both with death and grieving, is part of the reason I grew to have so many questions for those who had lost someone special to them, and why I was so unexpectedly affected by the death of actress Natasha Richardson.
I didn't know much about Natasha, other than her role in Lindsay Lohan's version of The Parent Trap and her marriage to Liam Neeson. But when I heard the news of her falling during a skiing lesson and dying shortly thereafter from a brain injury, I quickly discovered more details about her; how she had two young boys, how she loved philanthropy and cherished friendships. I continually found myself mentally checking back in with her kids and couldn't help but wonder if they were okay, or what they would say to her if they had another chance. The loss of a mother seemed unfathomable to me, and my heart was glued to somehow ensuring that her boys' emotional health was safe and accounted for. So quickly our loved ones can leave us, I realized, as if the thought hadn't crossed my mind in too long of a while. What do we do with all of those things we never had a chance to say?
I couldn't shake the reaction I had to her passing, and my overwhelming question of what we would say to someone if we had another chance. I wondered if others had the same question and if they ever said their feelings aloud. My intrigue grew so deep that I decided to start asking people about it. I traveled around the Pacific Northwest and invited others to write a letter to someone saying something they've always wanted to say, but never did. My hope was that they could finally release those built up emotions they've held in, let them out, and start to heal. Soon, with the help of friends, I created a blog and featured one letter each day on the site so that others could see the response I was getting and hopefully become inspired to write a letter of their own.
I received letters from all over the world about heartbreak and unanswered questions, some writing to old boyfriends and others to parents who abandoned them. I learned of the struggles people go through as well as the strength they've bravely built up in order to face them. I learned that addressing words left unsaid resonates with everyone, regardless of your age, culture, country or upbringing. Sadly, too, I discovered that people felt shame for their emotions because they hadn't moved on as quickly as society wanted, as if grief has a time limit or expiration date.
Though my heart was heavy for the writers' pain, regret and shame, I felt an overwhelming sense of inspiration and motivation. If they can be this strong, so can I. If they can speak up, others can, too. I felt forever changed by each letter I read and humbled that they trusted me enough to share. It showed me a great deal about our human need for connection and our ability to trust others in the midst of fear and insecurity. I continue to feel lucky and honored to be involved with this project, learning new things about myself and the world every day.
If I could impart the single, most important lesson I've learned over these last four years of working on The Things You Would Have Said, it would be this: If you love someone, tell them and tell them often. A partner, a friend, a family member, a teacher -- whomever you think fondly of -- please do not let it simply be a passing thought, an idea that warms only your own heart, or something you'll remember to tell them the next time you see them.
Unfortunately, I've learned that we rely too heavily on tomorrow and that we assume there will always be a next time. Live life as if there is no next time, and express your love for others with urgency. Make it a point to make each conversation you have with a loved one truly count, and don't let fear or procrastination hold you back from saying everything you want to tell someone.
And if life happens too quickly, words get lost, or moments pass you by, please know there are people in this world who want to hear what you have to say, to learn about your experiences, and to build a community of support around you. Visit www.wouldhavesaid.com to find just a few of them.