Want to be sure they know what you think?
By Carol / February 4, 2014 /
Write a letter they’ll read after you’re gone.
In these days of electronic communication, fewer people put pen to paper. Gone are the days when everything from the mundane to the momentous made its way on to paper and into the mail. As a writer who’s mined hundred-year-old letters for insights into everyday life in the early 1900s, I lament the loss.
But letters are not completely gone, and some people are finding that letters can serve a deeper purpose.
A new Twitter friend, Debbie Gruber, brought my attention to the intriguing genre of posthumous letters — letters that carry very special messages intended to be read after the writer has passed away. I’ve invited her to tell us more.
Everything you always wanted to know about posthumous letters (but were afraid to ask) – by Debbie Gruber
It’s not creepy . . . really.
Just to give you some perspective, posthumous letters, also known as legacy letters or ethical wills, date back to biblical times. The Old Testament described them over 3000 years ago (Genesis Ch. 49) and references to this tradition are also found in the New Testament (John Ch. 15 – 19). In the Medieval 18th century, fathers wrote legacy letters to their sons, as did leaders to their followers. A critic at the time said these types of letters were often “intellectually poor, but of a high moral level.”
Today, examples of posthumous communications abound. One of my favorites is from Sherwood Schwartz, creator of “The Brady Bunch” and “Gilligan’s Island”, who wrote a farewell letter to his family and fans.
Even politicians have written posthumous letters. In 2009, Senator Ted Kennedy composed a letter to President Barack Obama with orders that it be delivered to the President on the occasion of the Senator’s death.
Because of technology, the possibilities for posthumous communication extend beyond pen and paper. We can leave behind an audio or video recording. This brings to mind Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture.” Randy Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who was diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer. In 2007, he delivered literally his last lecture, entitled “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” The lecture, which he meant as a legacy for his kids, was devoured by the public, receiving over 16 million online views and spawning a New York Times best-seller.
For some of us, the word “posthumous” carries connotations that may make us uncomfortable. We envision morbid images – ghosts, graves, headstones, and the like. That’s how I used to feel. But one day, while contemplating a trip to Spain, that all changed.
As late-in-life parents of two teenaged boys, my husband and I were chomping at the bit to have a “parents only” vacation. I had always wanted to visit Spain. Traveling while our sons were at sleep-away camp seemed like the perfect opportunity for our getaway. We had left our kids before, but never for more than a few days, and never to travel overseas. As the trip approached, my anxiety grew.
Although excited about the prospect of a wonderful vacation, I felt increasingly uncomfortable about flying without my kids. I kept thinking . . . what if the plane crashes and I never see my children again? I realized my emotions were getting the best of me, but I couldn’t alleviate the anxiety that was gnawing at me.
That’s when it hit me . . . why not write them notes? This way, they’d have permanent keepsakes of my heart speaking to theirs. I found comfort in realizing that I could write notes. The process of writing the notes “sealed the deal.” If the unimaginable happened, my boys would have a permanent reminder of how much I love them and how they make my heart sing.
About a year later, I formed Heart Writing. My intent was to build a website where folks could create keepsake notes for their loved ones. As the business continues to take shape, I see that by writing notes, folks receive several benefits: peace of mind, a way to be remembered, and the assurance that loved ones always know how they feel. And, I hope that many years down the road, the “receivers” of these notes, the loved ones, will experience comfort and joy each and every time they read their notes.
Learn more about Debbie and Heart Writing at:
Debbie Gruber Bio
A late-in-life, baby boomer mom. Debbie lives on the north shore of Long Island (no, unfortunately not the Hamptons) with her husband, two teenage boys, and her “furry child” Lucky (a good natured Havanese). Lucky is the only one of her children who doesn’t talk back and complain about stuff.
What a lovely idea. And this post inspires me to catch up on snail mail to my friend who prefer old-fashioned correspondence.
I felt the same way, Mary. I found some nice note paper and am writing letters to several friends now. And I’m thinking about special notes for my granddaughters.
Thanks Mary . . . so glad you think it’s a lovely idea!
Thanks Carol for this fascinating post! I look forward to reading some of the links!
I have been spending time with my mother’s correspondence (she died in 2008). They are mostly letters, cards, and love notes from her children and grandchildren, as well as gorgeous birthday, anniversary and valentine cards from her husband. I’m bundling up the correspondence and returning them to the writers. The ones from my dad I’ll keep as precious reminders of his love for her. Can’t send them back to him!
I bet your mother’s letters bring back so many wonderful memories, Elfrieda. I know the letters I saved from my mother, do. Even those (almost all of them) that detail the simple happenings in her everyday life. I’m sure people are enjoying getting their own letters back. My sister sent me a letter I wrote to her when she got engaged. I read it now and think how young I was!
So sorry to jump in here so late. “Better late than never,” someone once said, though I’m not sure she knew what she was talking about. One can miss a lot when they are late.
I just wanted to add my voice to the chorus here. I’ve written a “Last Will and Testament” letter, which sits on my computer, buried in my documents. It’s geared to my two sons and their children and contains much of what others have said here. I also know that it’s entirely possible they’ll never see it, but the process of writing it was a good one for me. It clarified much. So all those lessons I hope they’ll “take away” I try to model for them in the here and now. I realize that finding a wad of old documents sitting on your dead mother’s computer is NOT the same as finding a suitcase filled with old letters and cards. So, I shall consider putting it all to ink soon. Thanks for the nudge, Carol. Now I’m off to explore Debbie’s links.
In this case, “better late” is exactly what we’re talking about, Janet! So you’re right on time. Even more so since you’ve already written a letter for your sons and their children. The only thing I wonder about my own documents stored in the computer is whether anyone will take the time to sift through these files. There may be no particular reason they’d find a handwritten letter, either.
Debbie, what do you recommend to ensure people actually receive this posthumous missives?
I don’t recommend storing letters on individual personal computers. As you pointed out Carol, who knows if anyone would take the initiative to sift though mounds of documents. It could very easily get lost in the shuffle. If you’re not using a service like Heart Writing, perhaps you could keep personal letters with your will, so the information would be residing with a trusted individual, your attorney or a family member.
Thanks, Debbie. I know I don’t even want to sort through my computer files. I can’t imagine anyone else making sense of my system! Keeping letters with the will is a good idea, as is a service like Heart Writing.