Letter Writing as a Tool for Healing (and Maybe Changing the System!)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the brave, beautiful folks who’ve shared their stories with me in the Birth Baggage workshops I’ve facilitated over the last year. Unexpected and unwanted events in their births left them with so many painful and crippling feelings: anger, grief, guilt, fear, betrayal, and more. With each workshop I lead, and each person whose story I’m honored to hear, I learn more about the needs of people in postpartum trauma, and continue to tweak and develop tools and processes for healing. For so many of those who tell me their stories, I notice that they have a lot of anger and betrayal and various emotions in the direction of others who played a role in the events, whether it was a nurse, a doctor, a spouse, or someone else. They often feel like they aren’t able to tell these people how they really feel out of fear that it won’t make any difference, fear of hurting the relationship, or because it just never occurred to them that they had a right to their own voice.

I recently had an “Aha!” moment when I realized that one of the tools I’ve been using for healing and connection for as long as I can remember could also be used for healing from painful birth experiences, especially the aspects surrounding other people’s roles in our stories. What’s more, this is a tool that can cause ripple effects by changing the way birth happens in our community. It’s so simple, but so powerful! I’ve been contemplating sharing this with the participants of the most recent Birth Baggage workshop, because they’ve been in my mind and heart so much, but realized I needed to spread the love further.

So, with no further ado, let’s talk about the fine (and all but lost) art of Letter Writing! Here are some ways to use this towards the purpose of healing and/or affecting change.Letter

  1. Give yourself permission to vomit out whatever arises without trying to edit it.  As Anne Lamont tells us in “Bird by Bird: On Writing and Life”, it’s incredibly important to write “shitty first drafts”. If we spend too much time worrying that the words won’t be reasonable or articulate or coherent, we don’t allow ourselves to even get started, let alone to allow the most intense feelings and thoughts to come through.  The first draft of your letter is for your eyes only.  Think of it more as a journal writing exercise than a letter at this point.  Let it take whatever form it needs to: outline, phrases, curse words, scribbles.  This is for you.  Just getting it all out on paper is very therapeutic.  Consider the paper (or computer screen) a safe space where there’s no such thing as “wrong”.
  2. Give yourself plenty of time to let the first draft “air out”.  This is not the version you’ll be sharing with anyone else.  After it’s out, you may feel lighter or more open than before.  You may feel a sense of release or relief.  Or, you may feel like you opened a door to lots more hurt, things you hadn’t shed light on previously, and now you need some time to be tender with those new sore spots.  Sometimes, we feel so empowered by the intensity of emotion we’ve released that we want to send it off right away.  This can end up causing more trouble than good! So, for now, just sit with the initial version of your letter and give it time.
  3. Consider your audience and your goal.  Are you writing to let someone know that you were hurt by their actions?  Are you hoping for an apology, a change in the way they’ll treat you moving forward, or just to explain why you’ve chosen to discontinue using their services?  Think about what sort of information this person needs to have from you, and in what form it will be most effectively received.
  4. Rewrite your letter as many times as needed with your aim in mind.  I once wrote a letter to someone who had caused me deep pain at a very traumatic time in my life.  My first draft was ten pages long, full of insults and threats, and indignation.  I broke all the “rules” of fair fighting by bringing up past events unrelated to the situation at hand, making personal attacks on the person’s character, and saying things to try to hurt her like she had hurt me.  As soon as I read that version, I knew it was just a therapeutic tool.  The second draft was much calmer, but still read like a laundry list of the intended recipient’s wrongdoings, and never really made any roads towards solutions or change.  By the third draft, I was able to say how I had been hurt, to explain how it continued to affect me and affect my relationship with the other person, and to describe what I hoped would happen so that we could repair the relationship.  The overall tone of the final version (which I eventually sent) was actually very loving, hopeful, and solution-focused.  While I knew that I couldn’t count on this person to come through with the apology and changes I needed, I had experienced profound change within myself just by speaking up for what I felt and what I needed, thereby showing myself respect and compassion.  I was also able to take ownership of my story, and responsibility for my part in the events.  So, no matter what the other person’s reaction was, I had already made things better for myself just by writing the letter.
  5. Actually send the final draft of your letter.  Get the contact information for the intended recipient or recipients.  Some good contacts may be: the nurse manager at your hospital, the office manager with your care provider’s practice, the customer service manager at your insurance company, the actual doctor or midwife who provided your care, and even the administrators of your hospital.  (As a childbirth educator at a hospital, I’ve heard many times, straight from the CEO of the hospital, how important patient feedback is to him.  He wants it all—good and bad—to come to the administration so that they can use it to know what they need to improve so they may provide the best care to every patient.  And I have seen changes made based on patient input many times.  It CAN happen.  This may not be the policy or practice at every hospital but it doesn’t hurt to try!)  Address your letter and send it!  It can be via email or on paper.  Mail it or hand deliver it.  Just be sure to do your story and your feelings justice by sharing what needs to be shared.

I have heard hundreds of birth stories from people who’ve been hurt in very real (physical and emotional) ways by care providers and professionals who acted in a disrespectful or even downright cruel manner. People whose birth outcomes and even lifelong health were affected by providers practicing based on convenience, habit, or routine rather than on what was actually safest and healthiest for the birthing parents. So many of these folks don’t ever speak up about what has happened to them. Many because they’re in the thick of caring for their families while healing their bodies, too busy in the reality of the immediate postpartum period. Later, they may choose not to communicate their stories because they feel too much time has passed for it to count. Or, they may feel they don’t have the right to speak up after so many people have told them, “Why are you still upset about your birth? You have a healthy baby and that’s all that matters.”

If even a tenth of the people who had unsatisfactory or traumatic birth experiences took the time to contact their care providers, nurse managers, hospital administrators, and anyone else involved in the chain of command, eventually the message would be too loud to ignore. Our birth experiences and our feelings around them are important. By speaking up for what we feel and need, we show ourselves respect, and may also pave the way for change in the system. What if your letter could make a difference in how another birthing person is treated? What if your letter could change a policy or a procedure? What if your letter could change how you look at your experience by empowering you and opening the door to healing?

How will you know if you don’t try?

Start with a shitty first draft.

(For further inspiration for writing your letter, check out this sample written regarding a traumatic incident during a birth. http://birthmonopoly.com/obletter/)


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