Writing Notes from the Heart: An Interview with Elizabeth Cottrell

I love getting mail. Real mail: the paper/notecard, envelope, stamp, addressed-by-hand kind. It’s rare for me to receive (and I confess, send) personal notes via the mail these days, so when I read the title of Elizabeth Cottrell’s book, Heartspoken: How to Write Notes that Connect, Comfort, Encourage, and Inspire, I knew I had to: 1) read it; and 2) talk to the author.

Heartspoken addresses how to write a variety of notes including thank yous, notes of support and encouragement, congratulations, get-well notes (as well as advice on writing to someone with a chronic or terminal illness), notes of apology or forgiveness, and a few pointers about writing holiday cards. Because of my interest in grief here on ZenBagLady, our conversation focused mostly on writing to someone who has experienced a loss.

Lynn: It’s so nice to meet you! I love these quotes from your book: “Try to make the writing of notes and cards an act of love, not of obligation. It will make all the difference to the reader when they receive it” and “Think of your notes as hugs by mail.”

Elizabeth: The reason I love handwritten notes is that they add a layer of thoughtfulness and commitment to that person. When you are the recipient of that, it is an acknowledgement that you matter and have value to that other person. There’s a warmth and a nourishment in having received that kind of message. The person who wrote the note is conveying a feeling, and it can have a ripple effect.

Lynn: You include advice on writing a variety of notes, but I’d like to talk specifically about writing a note to someone who is grieving. I’ve come to think of sympathy notes as one of those things we do in the course of the ritual of death, the ritual of recognizing that someone is grieving. I’ve known people who think it’s enough to show up at the funeral. Showing up is nice, but a note says so much more. Having said that, I know people don’t want to say the wrong thing and so often they don’t say anything at all.

Elizabeth: I think you’re absolutely right. And I think that that’s why sympathy cards are so important because they have a message already started. But boy, to me it’s really important to add a personal note.

Lynn: I agree. When my husband died, I received a card two days after he had passed from a woman I didn’t know. She wrote something like, “I am your age, I have a child and my husband is a farmer. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you right now.” Of the hundreds of cards I received, I remember that one the most.

Elizabeth: [Something similar] is the impetus that actually made me write my book. There was a man in our community whom I didn’t know and he committed suicide. I knew his fiancé casually and I wrote to her, but I don’t remember what I said. I wish that I had that letter because several weeks later, I got a note from that man’s mother. The fiancé had shared my letter with her and she had read it over and over many times. She said, “It helped me at the worst time in my whole life.”

Whatever I’d said came from my heart, as I thought about what she was going through. One of the phrases I use sometimes is “My mother’s heart is breaking for you” when they’ve lost a child. I think anybody who has children grieves for you. Or when somebody loses a sibling, I might say, “I have four siblings and losing any one of them would be like losing a piece of myself.” You have to be careful, though, not to assume that you know what they’re going through. It’s presumptuous to think that you can.

Now the other thing I do when I don’t know the person who died and may not know the person I’m writing to, is to read the obituary. Then I might be able to say, “It’s clear from their involvement with whatever, that they left an important legacy,” or, “It’s clear from what others have told me about him that they made a difference in their time on this earth.” So you really have to tailor all those things to the person you’re writing to and to the circumstances.

Lynn: You write that sharing a memory can offer comfort to those who are grieving. I know for me it was and is still important that people talk about my late husband, but as you write, people often think it would be upsetting.

Elizabeth: It comforts people to know their loved one is remembered, especially when you can relate a happy memory or tell them of any way their loved one showed you a kindness or made an impact on your life. For people who worry they’re going to say the wrong thing or don’t know what to say, remember that most of the people you write to will not remember exactly what you said. They will simply remember that you cared enough to reach out to them. And so while you need to give thought to what you say, the exact words are not as important as you think they are.

Lynn: I love how you call note writing a “superpower.”

Elizabeth: Well, we all want to have the ability to comfort people, to help people, to support people. And I just think people forget that they do have that ability, even if just in a small way. And it is because so few people acknowledge and use it that it becomes a superpower in the sense of the old comic book superheroes.

Lynn: In times of loss, people are so vulnerable. We’re forced into that position of grief by no means of our own, and so to hear from people, it’s like they’re wrapping us in bubble wrap and helping sturdy us a bit. Also, it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, end there. You recommend following up on important anniversaries, too.

Elizabeth: It’s really lovely to just drop them a line periodically to let them know you’re thinking about them. Maybe on the birthday of the person who died or the anniversary of their death, or if it’s a husband or wife, their anniversary; those different things are good times to reach out.

Lynn: You write with such enthusiasm! And the end of your book is filled with such helpful resources and answers to FAQs. I learned so much, and I’m sure everyone who reads it will come away knowing how to write a more heartfelt note, whatever the circumstance. Thank you so much for talking with me and for writing your book!

Elizabeth: Thank you so much. I’ve been blogging for a long time. My blog, Heartspoken, started out as a sharing of my own journey into ways to strengthen what I consider the four essential connections in life: with God, with self, with others, and with nature. And the note writing came as an offshoot from connecting with others. So that blog and my Compass Points newsletter rotate through those themes.

I’m so grateful to Elizabeth for talking with me. Go to heartspoken.com to find her contact information, and to heartspoken.com/book to read the first 28 pages of her book.

8 thoughts on “Writing Notes from the Heart: An Interview with Elizabeth Cottrell

  1. I like the comment about note writing being a “super power” so many young people today do not realize the power of a written word. They are too busy tweeting and texting it loses some of the warmth of expression. It’s not only a super power, but an art that is rapidly becoming rare.

    1. I completely agree. During the lockdowns, though, my grandkids and I exchanged letters. I bought them cards and some fun stamps and they’d send me their refrigerator art 🙂

    2. Thank you, Janet — that phrase seems to have resonated with a lot of readers. And while I agree that handwritten notes have a richness that tweets and texts can’t match, I also love your nightly texting to your sons and believe that words in any format can still be heartspoken.

  2. Lynn, thank you for the links! I ordered Elizabeth’s book & it arrived yesterday. I like to send cards but I often find myself fumbling for words. Looking forward to some guidance.

  3. What an honor it was to have this conversation with you, Lynn. If in any way it helps others when they want to help someone suffering from a loss…or contributes to the wonderful work you are doing to help others handle grief, I will be so glad. I look forward to following your work and maybe even future collaborations. Words matter, whether written or spoken, and as I write in every book I sign, “Words from the heart will never fail you.”

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