Dear HTWB Agony Columns
My life has been saved by a kidney transplant, the donor being someone who sadly had died and was a good match for me. I am a long-term kidney patient who without a transplant would have died well before my time.
I want to write to the family of the donor to say how much I appreciate what they have done in allowing their loved one’s organ to give me my life back. What should I write in that letter?
Ellen from Maryland, USA (not her real name or location)
This is an incredibly tough question, as I’m sure you – and all our readers – know.
For a list of all 12 articles in this series on how to write well to people dealing with death, bereavement and other life sadness, click here.
But to me, what really matters is that you say what is in your heart, and you mustn’t be intimidated by what you feel you should write: focus on what you feel you want to write. That’s what will resonate with the family of the deceased donor much more that a load of platitudes and generalities that could apply anywhere.
Should you thank them at all?
Depending on the circumstances of the organ donation, it may be that contact between the donor’s family and the recipient is not encouraged. Although I must assume that you, Ellen, are able to send a message to your donor’s family, it’s important for others reading this article that you make sure it’s OK to contact the family in your own case.
Given that such contact is only going to be possible via the hospital concerned, that hospital is likely to have a policy which will shape how any communications between you and the donor family take place. Much as you may feel an understandable need to thank the family concerned in personal terms, it’s important that you respect the policy involved: such policies are nearly always developed on the basis of what’s right for everyone.
Focus on what the family’s loved one has enabled
I can only advise here on the basis of what would be helpful for me, knowing that a deceased relative of mine had enabled someone to live on through his or her donation of a kidney. But for what it’s worth here are a few things I would consider writing about.
Obviously it almost goes without saying that the very gift of life, in itself, is miraculous and of course you should thank the family for that.
However if you want to make it more specific, envisage how that family would be thinking on about the future had their loved one lived: so you might like to mention things like:
Your ability to come off dialysis and live a normal life
What you can do now that you couldn’t before
What family activities you can do now, that you were unable to do prior to the transplant
How and to what extent you’ve now been able to go back to work
What things you’re doing to promote organ donation in your community
And what more should you add?
In your shoes, all I would add is a final message that says, once again, that you owe that family your life.
Although there’s nothing you can say that will compensate them in the loss of their loved one, you hope that through this donation they will feel comforted by that contribution and what it’s achieving for the future.
What else? Perhaps an invitation to keep in touch, as acquaintances, to help build a new relationship in memory of their lost loved one.
What does everyone else think? What advice would you have for Ellen?
Please share: it could help many people in these circumstances.