9 Tips for Dealing With Family Dysfunction After a Death


Sometimes clarity comes when we least expect it. If you’re hoping to gain a better understanding of some aspect of your life, or you’d like to create an opportunity for your future self to reflect, a personal letter is a great way to do so. 

Writing a letter to yourself might also prompt you to think ahead about your end-of-life plans, from continuing your legacy with a platform like GatheringUs to making sure your assets are taken care of with an online will maker like Trust & Will.

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The best part about a personal letter is that you don’t have to worry about all of the typical conventions that come along with more formal letter writing, such as professional thank you letters. You have the power and freedom to practice total honesty, which, after you’re done, will likely feel quite liberating.

If you’re still feeling tentative or unsure about writing this letter, we compiled the following guide. However, you can take all of the following steps as a suggestion. You don’t have to follow any of them. Sometimes there is a lot of wisdom to be found in recklessly letting loose on a piece of paper, especially if you’re going through an emotional time—either a high-high, or a low-low. 

Step 1: Have a Purpose (Or Don’t)

Maybe this is the very first time you’ve ever written a formal (or informal) letter to yourself. You shouldn’t feel silly for wanting to do so. You never know what you’ll gain from anything if you don’t try, and you don’t have anything to lose. 

Unlike other types of writing, such as writing a commemorative speech, a letter to yourself can be fairly casual. You can speak in a language and even codes that only you understand. Letters to yourself also differ from speeches or eulogies, too, in that your purpose is unique to you. 

Feel free to ask yourself the following questions to help the process along:

  • Are you writing about a specific topic, or do you just need to vent?
  • Would you prefer to handwrite your letter or type it?
  • Are you placing a time limit on when your letter is complete, or do you plan to add to it?
  • What key points do you want to be able to reflect on?
  • Where do you hope to be when you open it (physically, emotionally, spiritually)?
» MORE: Online obituary that is 100% free. Honor a loved one beyond a newspaper.

Step 2: Attempt Some Discipline or Focus

If you’re sitting down, or pacing the room and occasionally stopping to scribble or type something, you’re obviously trying to complete this letter with some intention. You owe it to your future self to collect your thoughts and ideas in a somewhat coherent way so that they can be of value later.

That being said, you shouldn’t be tempted to “hold back” in this letter. If all goes as planned, after all, you’re the only one who’s going to be reading it anyway. Why would you give yourself nothing but the ugly truth? 

Perhaps you’re struggling with a particular aspect of your life right now more than others. Or, maybe it’s a recurring set of thoughts you’re trying to move past. On the other hand, maybe you’re doing amazing, and you’re worried it’s all gonna fizzle out.

These aren’t irrational feelings, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about them. You’re already beginning your winning streak by taking some real action. 

Step 3: Set the Mood

Though hammering away at your keyboard at 1 am may seem like the most vulnerable time to write a letter — perhaps as a way to tire yourself out — it may not be the best time. You’d likely benefit more if you do yourself a service and create a safe, inspiring, and comfortable environment to draft your letter. 

How can you accomplish the right mood to write a letter to yourself?

  • Choose a familiar room or outdoor location: You may simply pick your desk at home, a favorite reading nook, or perhaps a park you love to go to.
  • Make sure your chair or sitting area is comfortable: In all honesty, being sprawled out on the floor works fine, too. However, you owe it to your back and the quality of the letter to pick a good spot.
  • Play some music to fit your mood: If you’re in the mood to listen to sad music, songs about living life to the fullest, or music that’s so horrible it’s good — it doesn’t matter which you choose, just as long as you vibe with it.
  • Have a drink (or two): There’s no hiding that some of us are more productive with good caffeine, or perhaps you’d rather unwind with your favorite wine. Consider keeping a glass of water as an alternate, too. 
  • Give yourself some time: Don’t try to cram this letter writing into a 15-minute window before you need to go to work. Well, you could, if you’re feeling compelled, but you likely won’t get as much out of this exercise as you possibly could. 

Step 4: Decide a Delivery or Open Date

The “delivery” or open date of your letter is fairly significant. Setting a specific date may seem odd. What if you’re not ready to read it then? What if you won’t feel any different by that time? This is where you have to have some trust in your path. Whatever you’re upset — or absolutely loving — about life right now may not be permanent. 

It will take hard work to either gain or maintain everything you have going for you right now. If you don’t want to set a firm date, instead, you can set a time limit.

For example, you can open your letter after your graduation, after the new year, after you land your next job, and so on. It doesn’t have to be a date so much as it has to be a feeling and a preparedness. You may also choose to write a letter to yourself to help you better remember a family member

» MORE: An online memorial is a perfect ending to honor and celebrate someone's life. Create one for free.

Step 5: Write It Out

We’ll let you in on a secret: your first draft doesn’t have to be your final. However, it may benefit you to have just one draft. Why? Your thoughts — if even scattered or grammatically incorrect — will be the most raw and vulnerable in the first draft. If after you seal up the letter you think of the perfect way to phrase something or have some other epiphany — that’s great. 

Jot it down somewhere else. And, perhaps the letter is already doing its job — teaching you something about yourself, your circumstances, or your outlook. 

Step 6: Put It in a Safe Place

When it comes to storing your letter for safe-keeping, treat it like a prized possession or a family heirloom. Do your best not to lose it.

For your letter to truly become impactful later or even fall flat, it will make you feel what it’s supposed to if you seal it for good till your designated open date. You owe it to your original feelings to let them be as they were in the moment. 

Let the letter marinate alone. Don’t disturb it. Perhaps, after reading it, you’ll have so much clarity about a certain situation that you thought you’d never have while you were drafting. If all you do after finally reading your letter is scoff to yourself a bit, that’s OK. Growth is good. Maturity is good. 

Examples of Letters to Your Future Self

To give you some inspiration or a jumping-off point, we provided some example letters you can draft to your future self below. Again, take this exercise as lightly or as seriously as you’d like. An important thing to remember, too, is to date the letter after you’re done writing it.  

» MORE: Grief can be lonely. Create space for your community to share memories and tributes with a free online memorial from Cake.

Example one

“Hey kid,

I know everything seems like the absolute worst right now, and maybe it is. Maybe this is the worst that it’ll be for a long, long time. Or, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’ll get worse than this. We can’t really know until we live it, and we will get through it. 

I hope you’re remembering what’s important. I hope you’re telling people you love them. I hope you’re going out of your way to make people feel good even when you don’t. I hope you’re giving yourself some slack. 

The thing is, kid, we can’t really know what’s in the future till we get there. I’m not gonna lie. We were really worried right now. Worried for our well-being. Worried what we’d have in a few weeks or a few months or worried about what we’d lose in that time, too. But now, as you’re reading this, I hope you take stock. I hope you’re damn grateful for what we do have, and don’t take it for granted. 

You did it, kid. You made it.

Big Love, [You on insert date and time].” 

Example two

“Hey lovely!

You are lovely, remember this. You’re currently listening to a throwback jam, Forever by Chris Brown. It made you smile not so much because of Chris Brown’s questionable character, but because it’s in the infamous scene in The Office that you love so much. You’ve come so far in the past year. You can’t give up now. I can’t wait to see where we are in a few months.

If you’re still feeling anxious, or like things aren’t what you thought they’d be, think of yourself this time last year. You were even more worn out and restless. It’s highly unlikely you’re there again. And, if you are, you know how to get out of it. Even if you don’t have some master plan yet, you know what you have to do to get there.

Just take it one day at a time, and make the most of each one. You know that not every day is guaranteed, so try to remember the moments and experiences that have made you laugh, cry, stress, get angry — whatever. It’s not all for nothing. Just look at where you are now. 

Try to be proud of yourself, you’re doing it!

Love yourself, [You on insert date and time].”

Example three

“Hi [insert name],

It’s Monday morning. Your week is off to an OK start. But, somehow, you feel really stuck. You’re full of questions about where you stand with the people you think are closest to you. You’re full of questions about your job. You’re still having feelings of doubt about your abilities — everything. You’re wondering what the next big thing is. You’re worried it will be a big bad thing. 

I can’t tell you how it’ll all play out. I can’t promise your heart won’t be broken or that you’ll feel better about everything by the time you read this. What I can promise you, however, is that you need to keep sticking to your values. Don’t lose them and hope for a quick fix for all of your problems. Remember, you play the long game. Slow and steady wins the race. Don’t ever forget who you are or be ashamed of it for longer than a second. 

You keep kicking butt, OK?

All the love, [You on insert date and time].”

If you want more examples on how to write about you, read our guide on how to write about yourself.

Your Thoughts Matter Now, and They’ll Matter Then

Sometimes the little things in our lives set us off, till we realize there’s something a lot bigger at work. What writing a letter to your future self can offer you, above all else, is perspective. It doesn’t mean that when you draft your letter you’re not right to be upset about the things you’re upset about. Your feelings are valid. But, in all honesty, you’ll likely realize that certain feelings and frames of mind may not serve your best interests for very long.

Hold onto what serves you best. Let go of what doesn’t. Celebrate everything you go through, no matter how hard it is. And, if nothing else, be grateful that you’re still there to be reading that letter when the day comes. For more resources about end-of-life planning as well as ideas for birthday resolutions, check out the rest of Cake


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