Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Things You Would Have Said

By Susan Esther Barnes

Jon Carroll has been my favorite San Francisco Chronicle columnist since the death of Herb Caen. (Yes I know I'm dating myself here). Last week he wrote a column about a website called "The Things You Would Have Said." On its home page, this website says it is here for the following purpose: "Whether the person has passed away, contact was lost, or the strength needed at the time was lacking, this is a chance to say what you have always wanted them to know." People send in their letters to the website via email, and they are posted with the author's name and age, or anonymously, as requested.

The posts on this site provide a fascinating read. Some are heartwarming; others are heart wrenching. For those who have the time, I recommend reading them all, except I would suggest that animal lovers skip "Black Cat." (Trust me on this one.)

When I first learned about this site, I wasn't sure it was such a good idea. I believe if one person has something to say to another, they ought to do so directly, even if it feels overdue or awkward. Every time I have forced myself to have an uncomfortable conversation with someone, afterward I have been glad I did it.

Also, throughout my life I have told myself I won't second guess my decisions. I decided that as long as I sincerely try to make the best decisions I can with the information I have at the time, I won't berate myself later on if additional information I receive after the fact proves the decision to be less than optimal.

Still, with this reminder that there are many people who have been left feeling there is something they wish they would have said, I decided to take an inventory of the people in my life.

I thought about each person who is especially close to me, and wondered, "If I wanted to write a letter for the "Would Have Said" website, could I write a letter to this person? Is there anything I haven't said to him or her that needs to be said?" If the answer for any person were yes, then I would know that was a person I would have to contact soon so I could have a conversation with them.

Next, I took an inventory of people I used to be close to, but with whom I have lost touch. Was there anything there I needed to say? The most obvious person in this category is my ex-husband, but I really have closed that chapter in my life. If there were any outstanding items in this category, then it seems to me it would be my obligation to at least make an honest effort to find the person and talk to them before I sent something in to be posted on the website.

Finally, I thought about the people I knew who have died. In a case like this, I could definitely see sending a letter to the website. After all, there is no way to go back to have a conversation with someone who has died. Which, of course, is why I think it's so important to have these conversations with the living before it's too late.

However, it does occur to me that saying people should only send in letters to people they can't find or who have died is too simplistic an answer. In some cases, the writers may need to vent their anger, which most likely would not be well-received by the other person. In this case, writing a letter to the website would probably be more healing than an in-person conversation. For example, I don't imagine the person who wrote to her rapist would have been better off tracking down her attacker after all those years.

So, although I have some concern people may use this website as an excuse not to have the conversations they ought to have with the people around them, I also recognize it can provide a powerful outlet for those who feel they need a venue in which to express themselves. And perhaps reading the posts of others may prompt some people to have the conversations they need to have before it's too late.

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