EXCLUSIVE – Working through Unfinished Business: Writing a Letter to Someone From Your Past
People often report having unfinished business after being separated from someone they love, whether due to death, divorce, or distance. Unfinished business refers to a sense that something was left unsaid or unresolved in the relationship or that some important opportunity was missed.
If you are experiencing unfinished business, try writing a letter to the person from which you’ve been separated. The point is not to deliver the letter to this person (if he/she is still living) but to organize and process your own thoughts and feelings about the relationship. Of course, if you are overwhelmed by your distress over these issues, it may be best to discuss them in the presence of a trained professional.
In the letter, consider addressing the following questions:
If all that comes out at first is anger, frustration, and disappointment, that’s okay. Write all that down. But when you’re done with that, look a little closer and see what else might be underneath those initial feelings. Might there also be some underlying sense of hurt (e.g., over a perceived betrayal), fear (e.g., that you’ll be doomed to make the same mistakes), or sadness (e.g., that a relationship with so much potential is now over)?
2. In a perfect world, what would it have looked like for this unfinished business to get resolved?
What did you most want from him/her? How exactly did he/she fail to give you what you were looking for? Or maybe s/he needed something from you that you weren’t able to give at the time?
3. Given what you know about the circumstances of the situation (e.g., personal histories of those involved), what is it that might have made it difficult for you (or others) to get your needs met?
What was this person’s upbringing like? What kind of role models did he/she have growing up? How might that have shaped his/her behavior? What other unique circumstances made it difficult to resolve this unfinished business at the time?
4. As you write about these circumstances, do any new thoughts or feelings emerge?
For example, some people might have an increased sense of empathy or pity toward the other person (or possibly themselves). Or there might be a feeling of pride for handling such difficulties with dignity and staying true to yourself. Write down all of these new feelings and observations too, as part of the letter.
5. Taking all of this information together, how do you now make sense of this relationship and the unresolved issues that you have been carrying with you?
To what extent can you envision ever carrying this emotional “baggage” around in a different way? What might that involve?
If you try this activity, let us know what you’ve learned in the comments box below. We want to hear about your experiences! Also, if you complete this letter-writing exercise, come back in a week and take the Unfinished Business Quiz again to see how your score has changed.
Singh, M. (1994). Unfinished business resolution: Development, measurement and application. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). York University, Toronto, ON.