There's something very visceral about the art of letter writing. When life hits us in all its random unfairness and we're left reeling and adrift, sometimes the only thing left for us to do is reach for a pen.
The following people don't have much in common. They come from all walks of life, from a dissident politician facing execution in Czechoslovakia to an Antarctic explorer stranded by snowstorms and a teenager looking for love in Massachusetts. Some are famous people, while others are merely extraordinary ordinaries.
Yet they have all found clarity and expression in the face of death. Confronted with the prospect of their lives ending, they've had the courage to put their feelings into words and write poignant, heartbreaking goodbye letters to their loved ones.
Ironically, these legacy of words are full of the kind of love, strength and rebellious spirit that makes death seem an impossibility. They are bubbling with warmth, humanity and clear-headed foresight that we can only really garner in our darkest moments. And they also form a comforting keepsake to be poured over for years to come, whether it's the patriotic commandant of a kamikaze pilot to his infant sons or a mother's loving acceptance of her husband's new lover (in a letter sent two years after her death).
Come give a cheers to the very essence of life and remember to hold your love ones close, as you read these heartbreaking goodbye letters, from the First World War to present day.
"You are my life, I love you" - from a dying father to his three-year-old son, 1991
Model photo - Getty Images
Christopher was just three years old when his dad, dying of leukemia, send him this moving farewell message. He died the following year, aged 38 years old. His letter covers some life advice and practical notes such as "I've left you all my tools and other neat stuff". But mostly it is full of pride and love, over-spilling with the urgent emotion of someone who knows they have little time left. Years later, Christopher gave his permission for the letter to be reprinted on the Letters Of Note website and the following extracts come from there:
I want you to grow up and be a success at whatever you attempt to do. The time that I did spend with you was a wonderful and enjoyable time in my life and you helped make it that way. This letter is very hard for me to write because I keep starting to cry, knowing that I will not be here when you are reading this. The sadness keeps overwhelming me and tears are flowing down my face. I'm so very proud of you and you have shown me just how smart you are already. I expect you to grow and be able to use your head to think things out and to be able to ask questions if you don't understand something.
Above all else I need to know that you will always be there for your Mother and your sister. Your family is more important to you than anything else in this world. I know that there will be times that you get upset with Mom for not letting you do something that you want to do, but she does really know what is best for you. Listen to her and learn from her advice.
... I want you to face life and the problems that it gives you with a positive outlook, because if you think of the bright things in life, it makes the bad things not so bad after all! You are a beautiful and smart boy and I wish you all the luck and good fortune a person could ever want or need. I am sitting here typing this letter to you and you are right next to me shooting your bow and arrow that you got yesterday at Storybook Land. Christopher, please just always remember that I LOVE YOU more than anything in this whole world, and even if I'm not with you, you are always and forever in my heart and mind.
If at all possible Chris, I will always be with you. You are my Life. I LOVE YOU. Good Bye, Son.
[signed and added in pen] I love you!
"Don’t let life defeat you. Decide to fight" - from a mother facing execution to her 16-year-old daughter, 1950
Dr. Milada Horáková
What do you say to your daughter when you are facing death on charges of espionage and treason at the hands of the state? Dr. Milada Horáková was the only woman executed for political reasons in Communist Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. Now regarded as a public hero, Horáková worked for an anti-Nazi resistance movement during World War II and was a prominent figure in the fight for women's rights with Czechoslovakia's National Socialist Party.
After the country's Communist coup-d’état in 1948, she was arrested and tortured along with hundreds of other political prisoners. During her trial, she stood tall and straight in the courtroom, speaking in a quiet, firm voice. She was sentenced to hang and on the eve of her death, wrote a letter to her teenage daughter Jana. It was not delivered but published in 1990 in a small book. This excerpt comes from the Cold War Radio Broadcasting blogspot.
The reason was not that I loved you little; I love you just as purely and fervently as other mothers love their children. But I understood that my task here in the world was to do you good … by seeing to it that life becomes better, and that all children can live well. … Don’t be frightened and sad because I am not coming back any more. Learn, my child, to look at life early as a serious matter. Life is hard, it does not pamper anybody, and for every time it strokes you it gives you ten blows. Become accustomed to that soon, but don’t let it defeat you. Decide to fight.
"I still want to find a guy I like, who likes me back" - from teen cancer patient Esther Earl to her future self, 2008
Esther Earl in a post on YouTube
This heartbreaking letter is written by Esther Earl, a Massachusetts-based teenager who passed away of thyroid cancer in 2010 at the age of 16. It was sent to her parents, Lori and Wayne, a year after her death and reveals her hopes for her future self - including her desire to "find a guy" and "just be happy".
Esther wrote the letter aged 14, in the event of her death. Her parents published it in a collection of their daughter's drawings and notes titled This Star Won't Go Out: The Life & Words of Esther Grace Earl. It was this, along with Esther's series of YouTube videos she posted about her battle with cancer, that inspired John Green's best-selling novel (and subsequent film adaptation) The Fault in Our Stars.
These passages come via the Daily Mirror:
this is a letter for the future esther. future me, i hope you’re doing better than present me.
i hope that if you still have your cancer, at least it will be gone enough for you to be off oxygen. and if it’s not, just remember to use that Ocean Spray to keep your nostrils moist :] and i hope you’ve tried to talk to more people that also have cancer. in the world, there’s not ONLY boring people with cancer. there are people that are awesome, but maybe you just haven’t met them yet. you never will if you don’t try.
remember how you always wanted to do something for the world? remember that? if you haven’t done something amazing, don’t forget to try. the worst that can happen is you fail, and then you can just try again until you succeed. those words don’t work on me now, but just try to remember them.
And then there’s mom and dad. oh, mom, how is she? is she teaching again? is she happy? she works so hard now, everyday she’s so exhausted. she does too much. i love her, and remember to tell her that everyday.
What about, oh those silly things, boys? have you been kissed yet? amidst allllll the health problems and psychological problems, i still want to find a guy i like, who likes me back. i can’t help it, it’s just one of those stupid things i want. have you at least had a like who liked you back? geez…
Just…just be happy. and if you can’t be happy, do things that make you happy. or do nothing with people that make you happy.
"Marrying you was the best thing that ever happened to me" - from a decorated Falklands war officer to his wife, 1982
Sara Jones, widow of Lieutenant Colonel 'H' Jones who was killed in the Battle of Goose Green, looks at the list of names of the Falklands war dead in 2012
Lt Colonel Jones - known as "H" to his friends - was the highest ranking officer to be killed in the Falklands conflict. The 42-year-old father died during a one-man charge on an Argentine trench in the Battle of Goose Green in 1982, for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He was killed by enemy fire while commanding 2 Battalion, The Parachute Regiment.
This is part of a letter sent to his to wife, Sara, 10 days before his death. It was originally shared on Wales Online. Sara, now in her seventies, was later appointed a CBE for her services to forces charities.
I don’t suppose there’s any chance of anything happening to me, but just in case I want to tell you how very much I love you, and thank you for being such a super wife for the last 18 years.
I know we have had our ups and downs, but despite all that it’s been a wonderful time, and you have made me very happy.
I certainly wouldn’t want to change any of it. Marrying you was the best thing that ever happened to me, and thanks to you I can look back on a life that has been pretty good so far. I’ve been very lucky – let’s hope my luck holds.
Look after yourself, darling; give Jimmy and Scrumpy my love. All my love, darling, always.
"I wanted to know you for longer, my love, but it wasn’t to be" - from a dying romantic fiction author to her parents, husband and three-year-old son, 2006
Best-selling romantic fiction novelist and journalist Melissa Nathan was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32 in 2001, when she was midway through her book Persuading Annie. She was unfailingly positive in her battle against the illness and faced it with great courage, preferring laughter to tears. She was worried that cancer would prevent her from becoming a mum but in 2003 gave birth to her adored son Sam. Melissa's final book Learning Curve came out in August 2006, and knowing she would probably not be there when it was published, she used the opening pages of it to write a final letter to her family.
Melissa died aged 37 in April 2006. In the months before her death, she set up the Melissa Nathan Award For Comedy Romance award, to encourage and reward writers who can combine in a novel the magical, life-enhancing elements of humour and love. Her final efforts were devoted to her son - just days before she died she managed to attend his third birthday party. This letter comes via her website MelissaNathan.com.
First, to my wonderful parents. You have given me a life suffused with love, support and friendship. I have been lucky enough to see eye to eye with you both, and look up to you at the same time. Please never feel that I have had a hard life. I have had 37 wonderful years, and I’m grateful to you both for giving me that. I am happy and at peace. My wonderful Andrew. I respect you as much as I love you, and that is saying something. You, of all people I know, will get through this. After all, you’ve got through nearly 12 years of marriage with me, and that’s no easy feat. I have been so lucky to know you. You have been my steady rock, my gentle giant, my best friend, my everything. I wish you a happy life, full of love and joy. And my amazing Sammy. I wanted to know you for longer, my love, but it wasn’t to be. Still, at only three years old, you have already left an imprint on my heart that will go with me, wherever it is I’m going. Motherhood made my life worthwhile. And you gave me that. What does a mother wish for her son? I wish you happiness. You have a wonderful daddy and a family who adores you. Go into the world knowing that while you were everything to your mother, you won’t have to deal with an annoying woman who can’t stop kissing you when you’re 15. I will be in the sky kissing you from afar.
"Obey your mother, and do not trouble her" - from a Japanese Kamikaze pilot to his two young sons, 1945
An aircraft taking off on suicide kamikaze mission is waved off by the pilot's comrades during WWII
Japan's kamikaze pilots comprised a squad of young men who crashed their aircraft into Allied ships at the end of World War II, in an act of patriotic sacrifice for their country. Few fathers volunteered for the suicide missions, but Captain Masanobu Kuno was among them. He was part of Japan's Operation Kihusi, which targeted more than 350 US ships between April and June 1945, resulting in thousands of casualties. The destroyer Captain Kuno hit on May 25, 1945 did not sink. This is part of a letter he wrote to his two children, five-year-old Masanori and two-year-old Kiyoko, on the night before his death - via Wales Online.
Even though you cannot see me, I will always be watching you. Obey your mother, and do not trouble her. When you grow up, follow a path you like and grow to be fine Japanese persons. Do not envy the father of others, since I will become a spirit and closely watch over you two. Both of you, study hard and help out your mother with work. I cannot be your horse to ride, but you two be good friends. I am an energetic person who flew a large bomber and finished off all the enemy. Please be persons who rise above me and so avenge my death.
"I love you, whoever you are" - from a wife to her husband's new love, 2013
Brenda Schmitz and her husband David
This extraordinary letter was written by mother-of-four Brenda Schmitz to a local radio station, two years after her death from ovarian cancer in 2011. Brenda had entrusted the note to an anonymous friend, with instructions not to mail it until her husband David had recovered from her death and fallen in love again. During her life, Brenda had always been moved by the Christmas Wish program run by her local Des Moines radio station. So her letter was addressed to the team there, requesting a string of presents for her family, her husband's new girlfriend and her hospital carers. Two years after she wrote it, the radio team read out Brenda's Christmas wish for her loved ones live on air with David in the studio to hear it.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the room when we got the letter, " a radio producer told the Des Moines Register. "It really inspired us to do something for her."
All of Brenda's wishes were granted, including a day of pampering for her husband's new partner.
"She deserves it," Brenda wrote. "Being a stepmother to all those boys, and especially giving little Max a mother's love that only she can give. Make her smile and know her efforts are truly appreciated from me. Thank you. I love you, whoever you are."
Hello my name is Brenda Schmitz and when you are in receipt of this letter I will already have lost my battle to ovarian cancer.
As I was thinking about my last months on earth I told David my wishes after I was gone that I believe he followed through with the attitude and courage I know he possesses.
What a great husband and father he is. I know all of this is extremely hard on him. He is the one making the best decisions for my family and ultimately finding a caring, compassionate loving woman in time to help raise the boys. She must be quite a lady (I wish I could have met her) to take on the task of raising a large extended family with unwavering love and devotion and a huge heart.
We have four boys Carter, Josh, Justin and my little Max. Max is the youngest at two years old.
I was diagnosed right after his first birthday.
No child as young as Max should have to lose his mother and it brings tears to my eyes now thinking of it. God I will miss seeing him and the boys grow up to be fine men. I have relayed to David to try and not let him forget me. He is such a bright, intelligent and beautiful boy.
My reason for writing this is I have a wish for David and the boys and the woman and her family if she has kids also. I want them to know I love them very much and hope they always feel safe in a world of pain.
I was hoping that one small act you all could do for me could change their lives for ever and they know I am with them always.
"Kisses for you love and my little ones" - from a First World War soldier to his wife and family, 1917
British soldiers in the trenches of France during World War I
This anxious, loving letter was sent by Lance Corporal Frederick Swannell to his wife Nell during World War I. His note hints at the terrible conditions on the Front, as well as his desperation to be reunited with his wife and their daughters Elizabeth and Charlotte.
In language heaving with emotion he tells her "how I wish that this terrible anxiety and suspense was over." Weeks after writing it, the 35-year-old was killed in the Battle of Arras in April 1917. His body was never recovered.
Amazingly, Nell kept her husband's letter in her handbag for 64 years afterwards, so it was always close to her. Her daughters only discovered their father's touching message - and the fact that their mother had kept it in her bag for decades - after she died and placed it next to her in her coffin. This passage comes via an article in the Express:
My foot is progressing very slowly but lately I have been very bad in health for the conditions I have had to go through out here is gradually telling upon my constitution for I reckon I have stood it well up till now but I feel as I am getting beaten.
How I wish that this terrible anxiety and suspense was over for I do long to be with you and our dear little ones who are continually in my mind.
I have done over my bit as you know but it seems no matter how long or what you have been through out here they are never done with you.
Let us...hope for a peaceable time for us both and all for if I am lucky enough to get through it alright I hope to have a happy and loving life with you and our dear little ones for you know I love you and I always will and I know you do me.
I am your ever loving husband Fred Swannell.
Kisses for you love and my little ones.
"We have decided not to kill ourselves but to fight it to the last" - From Captain Scott to his wife and his friend, 1912
Robert Falcon Scott's party at the South Pole, 18 January 1912
The letters written by Capt Robert Falcon Scott on his ill-fated expedition to the south pole have gone down in history for their bravery and stoic lack of sentimentality in the face of adversity.
Scott and his team reached the pole on 17 January 1912 but were beaten to it by a Norwegian party led by Roald Amundsen. On the way back to base camp, the men were waylaid by gale force blizzards and snowstorms and suffered from starvation and hypothermia amid dwindling supplies. Confined to his tent, Scott wrote letters to his beloved wife Kathleen and his former commanding officer Admiral Sir Francis Bridgeman.
In the letter to his wife, he reveals how he and his men"have decided not to kill ourselves but to fight it to the last". It is an honest outpouring of love for Kathleen, as well as their baby boy Peter whom Scott advises to "make interested in natural history if you can". He also urges his wife to remarry "when the right man comes to help you in life". The other letter to Sir Francis is equally honourable - he talks of not neglecting his sick team members and facing death "like men". But it is rather more candid than that to his wife, as he expresses concern over financial assistance for his family. "I leave them very ill provided for," he says of his wife and child, before requesting that the country help them.
The bodies of Captain Scott and his team members were discovered in November, eight months after Scott made his last diary entry. Photos of his wife and son were discovered in a red leather case on Scott’s frozen body, along with a letter from his wife declaring "I love you more than is at all comfy and moreover I think you are splendid".
From Captain Scott to his wife Kathleen:
If anything happens to me, I should like you to know how much you have meant to me. I must write a little letter for the boy if time can be found to be read when he grows up. Dearest that you know I Cherish no sentimental rubbish about remarriage. When the right man comes to help you in life, you ought to be your happy self again. Make the boy interested in natural history if you can. It is better than games. Try to make him believe in a God; it is comforting.
Oh my dear, my dear, what dreams I had of his future and yet, oh my girl, I know you will face it stoically – your portrait and the boy’s will be found in my breast. What lots and lots I could tell you of this journey. What tales you would have for the boy, but, oh, what a price to pay. To forfeit the sight of your dear, dear face. I think the best chance has gone. We have decided not to kill ourselves but to fight it to the last for that depot but in the fighting there is a painless end so don’t worry.
The red leather case found on Scott's body showing a picture of his wife Kathleen
From Captain Scott to his friend Sir Francis :
My Dear Sir Francis Bridgeman
I fear we have shipped up - a close shave. I am writing a few letters which I hope will be delivered some day. I want to thank you for the friendship you gave me of late years, and to tell you how extraordinarily pleasant I found it to serve under you.
I want to tell you that I was not too old for this job. It was the younger men that went under first.
Finally I want you to secure a competence for my widow and boy. I leave them very ill provided for, but feel that the country ought not to neglect them.
After all we are setting a good example to our countrymen, if not by getting into a tight place, by facing it like men when we were there.
We could have come through had we neglected the sick.
Good-bye and good-bye to dear Lady Bridgeman
Excuse writing - it is -40, and has been for nigh a month
"Dance, laugh and eat with your friends" - a mother and lover of life's last blog post, 2014
This last entry isn't a letter but a blog post - however, it so beautifully hits the nail on the head when it comes to love and the meaning of life, we couldn't help but include it. Self-professed "slummy mummy" Charlotte Kitley blogged about her two-year battle with stage 4 bowel cancer for the Huffington Post UK. As she explains in her blogger's biography, "I have been getting busy living; learning new and random skills such as balloon modelling, fishing, chocolate making and soon, learning to fly a helicopter. I’ve enjoyed precious moments including teaching my son to ski and watching my daughter meet her heroine, Belle from Beauty and the Beast." Sadly, the 35-year-old passed away earlier this month and she wrote a beautiful and utterly moving letter to her readers to be published after her death.
This is a passage taken from that post:
Please, please, enjoy life. Take it by both hands, grab it, shake it and believe in every second of it. Adore your children. You have literally no idea how blessed you are to shout at them in the morning to hurry up and clean their teeth.
Embrace your loved one and if they cannot embrace you back, find someone who will. Everyone deserves to love and be loved in return. Don't settle for less. Find a job you enjoy, but don't become a slave to it. You will not have 'I wish I'd worked more' on your headstone. Dance, laugh and eat with your friends. True, honest, strong friendships are an utter blessing and a choice we get to make, rather than have to share a loyalty with because there happens to be link through blood. Choose wisely then treasure them with all the love you can muster. Surround yourself with beautiful things. Life has a lot of grey and sadness - look for that rainbow and frame it. There is beauty in everything, sometimes you just have to look a little harder to see it.
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