Writer and broadcaster

When should I show my daughter a letter her dad wrote her before his death? The Guardian.

Dear Annalisa

I don’t so much have a problem as a quandary. My husband died of cancer, aged 33, in 2003.

We had a daughter the year before and throughout pretty much all my pregnancy and the first year of our daughter’s life he was receiving treatment. He died two weeks after our daughter’s first birthday.

My husband and I put together a memory box for her and he wrote her a letter. Though I read the letter at the time, it is now in an envelope in the box and I can’t remember everything it said. I had always thought I would know when the time was right to give her this box, but that has not happened.

She is a well-adjusted young teenager, has nice friends, is happy and does well at school. She never really asks about her father and, of course, does not remember him. I talk about him regularly, mainly commenting on things we might have done or things he liked and disliked if similar situations arise. She is close to his parents and sees them regularly and they, too, talk about him, but not much I think.

Is it likely she will get curious about him? I certainly want her to read his letter and see the things he put together for her, but don’t want to make it a huge deal. It is a big deal to me, but I don’t want to put her under pressure to feel something she just doesn’t. I do wish sometimes she would be a bit more curious – but that’s because I know he was such a lovely man and loved her very much. And I owe it to him. She takes very much after her dad in looks and mannerisms, and people often comment on that. I’m not sure how she feels about being compared to her dad and have never asked her.

I have not married again, although I have dated and had one longer-term partner who I did not live with. Incidentally, he also died when my daughter was about six. That was quite sudden and an accidental death. He was a relatively big part of her life, I suppose, but she doesn’t ask about him, either. Soon after his death, I realised he had not been right for me and, looking back, had in fact been very manipulative. I certainly don’t feel like I have been bereaved a second time, but perhaps did for a while.

I’m so sorry about your husband and subsequent partner. It seems to me you’ve had a lot to deal with. I wondered if you had ever been properly supported in this? Don’t forget about Cruse Bereavement (cruse.org.uk) – its counsellors are brilliant and it doesn’t matter how long ago you were bereaved, it can be so helpful to talk to them.

I contacted Alison Penny of the Childhood Bereavement Network (childhoodbereavementnetwork.org.uk). She thinks it sounds as if you’ve done “really well in keeping your husband involved in your daughter’s life, talking about him, keeping your parents-in-law close and being really sensitive to your daughter’s needs. And what foresight in preparing the letter and box together, it’s what we would encourage all parents to do.”

Penny thinks that if a natural time doesn’t present itself, then a good way in, if you need one, would be asking your daughter how she feels being compared to her father. She says: “This could give you a natural opening to find out whether your daughter needs anything more at the moment or whether she wonders about her dad – which could be helped by being told about the letter and the box.”

Another suggestion is that you may want to decide on a date – just before a significant birthday, say, although I was concerned it might make it into a big(ger) deal and think that a more natural way in would be better. Sometimes the perfect opportunities present themselves with the least planning.

As Penny points out, while the box and letter are, understandably, a big deal to you, your daughter doesn’t know about them, so they’re not a big deal to her, not yet.

So be aware that she may not respond in the way you would like because it’s a lot to take in. The letter and box may become more precious to your daughter in time.

We also wonder if you could read the letter again before you share it, to remind yourself of what it says – but also to prepare you, as it may stir feelings in you that are quite big when you sit down with your daughter to read it.

What would not be great would be if your daughter found the box/letter by accident, so you need to make sure that this does not happen. I would try to at least bring up its existence sooner rather than later. Remember: telling your daughter of its existence and opening the box do not have to happen at the same time.

One final point, when you do decide to show it to her, make sure, says Penny, “it’s when there is plenty of time to experience and share the sad or warm or confusing range of feelings that may be stirred up, and when you can be available for her”.

If your daughter needs any further support, don’t forget the excellent Winston’s Wish (winstonswish.org.uk).

This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 30 April 2016.