Writing Letters to Your Donor

One of my biggest fears surrounding our donor’s family is that they will hate me. I’m afraid they will resent me for having their baby’s heart beating in my son’s chest. I know it was their decision to donate their child’s organs, but it certainly wasn’t their decision to be put in a situation where they had to make that choice. No one wants to be faced with that call. I’m afraid that they’re angry with me for being able to be happy with my baby when they cannot be with theirs. People say it’s silly for me to feel this way, and that the donors will be thrilled that N is thriving and doing so well. My family tells me that they will be happy that some good could come from their loss, which means that their pain isn’t for “nothing.” And I hope beyond all hope that is the case.

From the responses on my article from donor parents, that is certainly the feeling I got as well. But what if it’s different for my donor? I know that if the roles were reversed, I would not be so graceful about it. I fear that I would have those deep, dark thoughts that you’re not supposed to have. The “why mes” and the “if onlys.” I fear that I would be fiercely jealous and bitter that they got to keep their baby. And if our donor feels that way, I certainly do not blame them. But I hope and pray that they find peace and happiness, and that those dark days and thoughts are few and far between.

I detailed in another post the open letter that I published. However, the letter we sent our donor’s family directly through our social worker was much different, as I did not include my own feelings of grief. I did my best to focus on theirs, for their grief and loss were far greater than mine. Because I am a mother, I think I subconsciously directed my letter towards our donor’s mother. Looking back, I wish I had directed my words more to include both parents and not just the mother, for fathers bear this burden as well. I just couldn’t relate to that pain, because I could barely relate to how my own husband coped. He and I handled things so differently, I felt like I could only speak to my counterpart. I wish now that I had been more open to understanding my husband and the donor father’s responses. Hopefully I didn’t hurt him or cause them any more suffering or pain. I didn’t mean to neglect him, I just wrote to the only person I thought I could understand. It felt more natural to me.

If you haven’t written your thank you letter yet, for whatever reason, I encourage you to do so. Some of the responses on my article were from parents of donors who hadn’t received letters but were desperate for news of their recipients. They so badly wanted to know how the fragments of their once whole child were faring, for the recipients are all they have left of their baby. Others were hesitant to reach out or read their letters, because the pain was still too great, even many years later. But I dare to think they’d rather have the letters and wait to read them until they are ready, versus not having anything at all. The overall theme, though, was that donors were ultimately happy that some good could come out of loss and that they were thankful that their babies could save others. No one seemed resentful, as I feared.

Putting your feelings into words might help lessen your own pain, grief, or guilt. I have found that writing things down, even if I end up shredding it or throwing it away afterwards, helps me manage my emotions. And if you feel that you are willing to share those words with your donor, I’m sure they would be more than happy to read them, when the time is right.

So the big question is: how do you know what to say? It is never easy to find the right words. I don’t really know that there are “right” words. Do you keep an upbeat tone, and show them how well their gift is doing? Do you remain somber and embrace the full gravitas of the situation? It’s impossible to know how your words will be received on the other end. Will a jovial tone come across as hurtful and taunting? Will a serious tone remind them too much of their loss? How do you know what to do?

I don’t really have a good answer for these questions. Since I wrote my initial letter immediately after N received his heart, I decided to err on the side of caution. I tried to keep my tone indicative of how my own grief for their loss was playing out, because their wounds were so fresh. But as we are approaching our one year anniversary, I recently wrote them another letter. The tone of this letter was less somber, but it maintained a very respectful position, because I still have no idea how they are coping. I tried to let them know how well N is doing. How well their baby’s heart was doing. I let them know that their baby’s heart beats in the chest of a warrior who is overcoming all kinds of hurdles. I told them how N is a wonderfully happy little toddler, and that it is all thanks to them and their angel. I told them that they are never forgotten; they are always with us. Only they will know if those were the “right” words.

All you can do is let them know that you are thankful for their kindness and selflessness, and that you will honor their gift to the very best of your ability. I’m sure anyone would be happy to receive those words.

About kharris

Kate Harris is an aerospace engineer for the United States Air Force. She is also a wife, mother, baker, quilter, and, now, a blogger!