“Don’t you remember our mantle?”

We were driving along in the jeep last Saturday afternoon heading to a corn maze with the boys. I had just heard from our neighbor that someone we both know had been in an accident and was critically hurt in a hospital up north. His wife is a friend of a friend, but I don’t know her well. She helped us with some projects in our house, choosing paint colors and finishes – but I haven’t seen her in years. Jamie suggested finding some way to help them, but I couldn’t think of a single idea. They have tons of family and friends caring for them. That’s when Jamie said, “Beck, don’t you remember our mantle?”

Our first house had a white fireplace mantle that stood out against the dark green walls. The dark color made the house feel smaller than it was, but also made it cozy. Thirteen years ago, that mantle got very crowded. Every day, I would come home from work and gratefully change out of my corporate maternity clothes before getting the mail. Each day the little mailbox had a note or two in it. I would stretch out on the tan corduroy couch to read the cards, while our long-awaited baby would start kicking and moving as soon as I would relax.

“You don’t know me, but I’m in your sister’s exercise class. Just wanted to let you know we are praying for your baby.”

“My son is in karate with your cousin. We are praying for you guys.”

After about 14 weeks, the messages in the cards turned to sympathy.  We knew from mid-pregnancy that our son’s lungs would not develop fully, and that he would not live long after birth. The cards continued to show up day after day for about six months.

We kept opening envelopes and propping them up on the mantle, tucking them inside each other so they could fit. It was a narrow, painted mantle, and it was slippery. I remember those cards tipping off the edge when we’d try to add more. We got them all up there though. Family, strangers, friends, church staff, co-workers were writing from across the US, Europe and Asia. Someone seemed to be thinking of us all around the clock because of those different time zones.

That mantle during those months was an image of all the support stretching in a web across the world, holding us up like a net – and keeping us from dropping too far down into a dark place. It was a visual reminder of God’s words, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

Other people were doing the thinking and praying so we could do the carrying and the burying. The support felt so tangible to me, like I could stand on it (or lay down on it, more accurately).

An article in the Washington Post a few weeks ago talked about a “new” approach to supporting people who are going through something hard: sending handwritten letters.

“[Letters] help provide social support, even if you can’t be there with your friend or family member, holding their hand and being by their side,” says Amanda Spray, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine.

Why are letters more impactful than a text or a phone call? It certainly takes more time. You have to find a note card, buy stamps, look up the person’s address, and think about what to write.  The article quotes psychiatrist Jena Lee, medical director of pediatric emergency psychiatry and UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital:

 “It requires a kind of deliberation that is so lacking in our time of fast-paced messaging and media. When you receive a handwritten letter, you reflexively start imagining the author sitting down and reflecting, thinking about you.”

The article also cites a study from 2016 that looked at a treatment for people who had recently attempted suicide. The treatment involved three therapy lessons plus two years of receiving personalized letters. There was an approximately 80 percent reduced risk of a repeat suicide attempt in the group who received letters.

Letters are not just for people in crisis.

Hand-written cards are a personal way to connect, express support, to help someone celebrate or mark a moment – like the first day of school or a new job. Notes also express sincere thanks, showing that you don’t take something for granted.

I love to receive notes, and I’ve been sending more too. Consider a few things this month:

  • Send a handwritten note to your kids’ teachers and principals, who are working longer hours, and hearing lots of complaints.
  • Pastors and leaders of all kinds could probably use some extra encouragement this year.
  • People who have had career changes because of the pandemic may appreciate a connection.
  • Someone who seems distant or down may value an extra connection for no real reason, other than to say hello.

Don’t worry about what to say.

Just think about the other person and be genuine. When our son died thirteen years ago, it was not one letter or prayer that supported us, it was the aggregate. It didn’t matter too much what any one card said. Most people just said they were praying for us.

Eventually, I stacked all those cards into a box and stashed it in a storage rack in the basement. I didn’t throw them away, but I didn’t look at them either.

Maybe you can guess how this ended today. I grabbed that box off the basement storage rack to take a quick photo of the pile of cards for this blog post.  After dumping them out and snapping a photo, I pulled a card out of the pile, and it was from a friend of a friend. The very person who caused us to remember our mantle, whose husband has just been in an accident. Her words to me all those years ago were perfect. I wrote them back to her today and mailed it.

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