Welcome to Part One of our interview with Frish Brandt. Frish runs a volunteer service called Lasting Letters. A Lasting Letter, sometimes called a legacy letter, is one that carries one’s voice forward through time, so that the recipient can read the letter writer’s words and hear the letter writer’s voice long into the future.
Ellary: Can you speak a bit about what a Lasting Letter is and the importance of Lasting Letters?
Frish Brandt: I believe in the importance of letters, the irreplaceable importance of the contemporaneous note — a note that’s written at a particular time. The catch with what I call Lasting Letters is that they’re essential letters, so they don’t really go out of date. You can look back on a letter from a particular moment in time and it will evoke that time for you. They also speak to something essential about the relationship between the letter writer and recipient.
Writing a Lasting Letter is not a common practice. People know they should write wills, and if they’re really evolved they might know something about writing an ethical will. But it’s not in the average person’s toolbox to write a letter.
I think there’s something about the form of a letter that is very special, very intimate. And each voice is so unique. For example, a dear friend of mine named Doris was in her 90s. I called her one day, and she revealed that she was in hospice. The next time I called, I asked her, “So Doris, have you written your letters?” Without missing a beat, she said “Yes.” Most people respond to that question with, “What letters?” So I was surprised at her response.
When I saw her I asked her to tell me about her letters. She said that she’d written three letters 20 years before, after she’d had a cardiac event. She said she’d opened one just recently and read it, and thought to herself, “You know, I wouldn’t change a thing.” And that’s kind of the point of these letters. Because they’re essential letters, they don’t require changing. People write them because they have a particular message they want to be sure is there when they’re gone. It’s as much for the letter writer as it is for the recipient.
Ellary: Have you always written letters yourself?
Frish: I have. My son is 25 years old and I’ve written to him his entire life. The form is important to me, not in a strict way but in a fluid way. For me writing a letter is kind of like jazz. It’s this collaboration with the recipient (or the unknown recipient) and the moment — the way I feel at that moment. It’s about the way I imagine them feeling; what’s on my mind; the way the light is streaming in; who’s in the White House…all of those things. For me letters are very fluid, and I think that’s part of what I transmit when I work with people. I’ve worked with people who are hesitant to write letters, and I’ve also worked with devoted letter writers and thought, “Well what do you need me for?” And then we do it and they tell me it’s a totally different experience, writing a letter with me. It gets you out of your own head to work with someone else.
Ellary: How did the idea for your business Lasting Letters come about?
Frish: It’s a volunteer business so it’s not a “business” per se. It could be, but I wouldn’t even know how to charge. I feel like this is just a gift that I offer. It came to me 10 years ago when I read an article about palliative care in the New York Times. And I thought, “Wow, that is really the kind of conversation I want to be having. I can go there.” I knew that because I’d been proximate to death or severe illness many times, and because I know what has resonance for me.
I run an art gallery, and it’s very demanding and satisfying. But I knew that I also wanted to be involved in the end-of-life conversation. A few years ago it just came to me in something of a flash: I thought, “I can help people write letters.” Then it was like inventing the wheel, because helping people write letters is not a common practice. But it felt like a transformation of sorts. So I looked for people to have these conversations with.
The work I’ve done has been deeply rewarding in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. Everyone is mortal, and everyone has a lasting letter in them. The question is how to find it. People who have a terminal diagnosis are a little bit closer to knowing what to say. But even people who don’t have a terminal diagnosis can find that place inside them. For instance, I say to my friends, “If you’ve ever been on a plane and felt severe turbulence, you know what I mean.” You think, “Oh my god I meant to say that thing, leave that note, made sure they know I care.” So it’s the severe turbulence in our life that is often the motivator.
What surprised me most about doing this work with people who have, for instance, ALS or cystic fibrosis, is that writing the letter buoys them. They may still be feeling pain, but everyone I’ve worked with has been deeply engaged in the process and has gotten a sense of relief from it. When so much of their life is about numbers and prognosis and doctors, writing letters lets them do something creative that’s about connection and the people they care the most about. I’m grateful to be able to be the midwife; I feel like I’m a letter midwife.
Ellary: Do the letters always have a recipient?
Frish: So far they’ve all had a recipient, but sometimes the recipient will be someone who is no longer alive. Someone might want to write to their dead grandmother. Letter writing is a great format for grief.
I’ve always thought that letters are a great form of communication, whether or not you’re able to deliver the letter to the person you’re writing to. Because you’ve got to get that stuff out. It might seem like solo communication, but there’s always somebody at the other end. Imagine those stories where a letter finally reaches someone after 10 years. It’s a phenomenal connection.
Ellary: What does the process look like?
Frish: Well, it starts with sitting down with someone, and asking, “So who are we writing to?” And they’ll say, “We’re writing to my daughter, of course.” Or they’ll say, “I’m writing to my brother, who I haven’t seen in four years.” Or, “I’m not really sure.” And in that case, I’ll just ask them questions until it becomes clear. The questions I ask depend on the person. They are as spontaneous as the process. If you’d like we can go through a short version of it right now, just so you can get a better sense of how I work.
Ellary: Sure, I’m game.
Frish: OK, Ellary, do you have a lasting letter in you? Is there somebody you want to write to?
At this point I delve into a brief but very profound and efficient exercise with Frish, where she asks a series of questions that unearth the root of what I’d really like to communicate to a person I’m no longer in touch with. I talk while she takes notes. Then she spends a few moments crafting a letter while I make myself a cup of tea. When she reads back to me what she’s written, I’m impressed. She has distilled my stream of consciousness explanation and jumbled attempts to figure out what I’d like to say into a short, direct note that expresses the core of what I’d like this person to know. The letter was all my words, in my voice—Frish had just helped organize them, and did so with skill and compassion. And — surprise! I felt better afterwards.
Come back next week to read more about how to write a Lasting Letter and learn more about Frisch’s work.