In February of 1997, Mary Jane Steinhagen learned that the spouse of a fellow Bible study member had been diagnosed with leukemia. He died 17 days later.
So Steinhagen performed a seemingly simple gesture: She pulled out a pen and sent the widow a "thinking of you" card. Many months later, she ran into the widow who told her that the little card arrived just before her birthday — a birthday that her children had forgotten. The widow told Steinhagen that she held that card "and cried all day."
That touching encounter propelled Steinhagen, of Richfield, down a creative and compassionate path that she still walks today. Twenty-five years and hundreds of handmade cards later, Steinhagen reminds us of the healing power of empathy tucked inside an old-fashioned envelope.
"Most of the people I've sent cards to are of a certain age, which includes myself," said Steinhagen, who turns 75 Nov. 30. She sends out 20 to 25 cards each month.
"We are not texters. We are people who want something to see, look at, hold. There is an appeal for that."
Indeed there is.
"I have saved every one of them," said 68-year-old Elizabeth Meylor of Minneapolis. She received Steinhagen's uplifting cards every week for six months beginning in March of 2017 after the death of "the love of my life."
"I made a Word document of some of the quotes she included in the cards. She also gave me a copy of the book, 'Healing After Loss,' by Martha Whitmore Hickman, and I still read it to this day. I am so grateful to have her in my life."
Carole McCarren, 78, moved to the Twin Cities from Connecticut 10 years ago, just after her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. Cards began to arrive, accompanied by Mary Oliver poems and personal notes.
"And every week, phone calls, cards on the date of my husband's death. She was always checking in," said McCarren, who noted that Steinhagen has become a close friend.
"It's a blessing that she came into my life."
Dan Rode of Clifton, Va., was in anguish after the cancer death of his 69-year-old wife two-and-a-half years ago. Within weeks of her Minnesota memorial, Steinhagen's handmade cards were arriving in his mailbox, with a touching detail — the image of a dogwood tree — which was the favorite of his Minnesota-born wife, Therese.
"The cards usually came with a poem related to grief and recovery," Rode said. "First of all, it was a surprise. Second of all, it was someone saying we care about you. It meant something."
You are remembered
After that initial encounter with the Bible study member, Steinhagen continued to send cards informally for about a decade, printing out encouraging phrases on her computer, then adding them to whimsical paper creations. "This isn't rocket science," she clarified. "I play well with tape, scissors and glue."
In 2006, she took a job as a pastoral minister at Christ the King Catholic Church in Minneapolis and her labor of love became a bit more official.
"There were a fair amount of funerals," she said. So she started sending cards to the surviving spouses. She kept a three-ring binder with quotations related to grief. Among her favorites is this one taken from Maya Angelou's "When Great Trees Fall":
And when great souls die/after a period peace blooms/slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill/with a kind of/soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never/to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed.
Weekly for six months, the grieving spouse received a unique handmade card from Steinhagen with important subtext: You are not forgotten.
The six-month time frame, Steinhagen said with a laugh, was picked somewhat randomly. "I knew I'd have to stop at some point. I was kind of busy." She also sent a card on the anniversary of the loved one's death.
Turns out, many card recipients had another idea — refusing to let her stop. Rode said he is still receiving her cards.
"Maybe that's because of where I am in the grief cycle," he said. "I do tend to respond with a little thank you note."
Another church member also asked Steinhagen if the card "service" could possibly continue, "as her widowed mother loved them so much."
Steinhagen laughed: "I am the service." (She continued sending cards to her mother for another year.)
Steinhagen, a former middle school teacher, retired from her church work at 65, then returned to the same position at 70, expanding her list of card recipients to parishioners facing cancer.
"The cards offer weekly reminders that we remember them during their treatments, which are often difficult," she said.
When she was about to retire for good two years ago, she got her own health news: Stage 4 breast cancer.
"Well, why not me?" she said. She's on an oral chemotherapy, she said, "and doing very, very well. Very stable."
And, yes, she is receiving cards and she loves to get them. "Some people send me cards that I sent them," she said, amused. "What goes around comes around."
She plans to continue to send cards for as long as she can. And she hopes that others will be inspired to do the same, on their own, or within their faith community.
"I will always remember the time I drove out to visit a parishioner with memory issues who was living in a care facility. Upon meeting her, I told her who I was and that I was from her church. Her response was, 'It is so nice to know that my church hasn't forgotten about me.'
"Sending cards is important."