I’m a member of one of those Facebook groups, “You know you’re from______when,” and in my case it’s the Chicago suburb of Itasca. Recently we’ve been sharing photos and comments about our favorite, and least favorite, elementary school teachers. My junior high science teacher, Mrs. Wolf, was far and away my favorite teacher who instilled in me the joy of learning new concepts and striving to always try my best. In addition to her regular class work, she volunteered her time and hosted labs an hour before school so she could teach us things and conduct experiments beyond the normal curriculum. She clearly loved to teach and her enthusiasm was absorbed by several of us.
As I reminisced with my old classmates (I admit that’s redundant), I wished I could reach out to Mrs. Wolf, thank her, and let her know what a huge impact she had on me. Unfortunately, Mrs. Wolf, like my mother, was a chain-smoker but, unlike my mom who made 90, she died in her 50’s.
This all made me think of an article I’d read on a flight a few years ago. I keep a file “WMSB Blog Material,” and the pages I’d semi-neatly cut out of the December 2016 issue of Southwest Magazine were buried in there. The title of piece by Michael Graff, THE LETTER, of course caught my attention. The opening sentences also drew me in:
The assignment was simple: Write a letter to someone who changed your life. Then show up on their doorstep and read the letter aloud. But when Michael Graff reconnected with his former mentor, the assignment transformed in a way he never could have anticipated. Ultimately, she taught him one final lesson.
Here is a link to Graff’s beautifully written and deeply moving story of the power of gratitude and reconnection—and much more. I encourage you to read it. You won’t be disappointed.
You may or may not be surprised to know that gratitude has been clinically proven to improve one’s mental health and sense of well-being. This is an excerpt from Graff’s article:
The Gratitude Letter Explained
When Dr. Martin Seligman, “father of positive psychology” and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, first entered the field in the 1960s, psychologists were focused exclusively on pinpointing what was wrong with people. But Seligman saw the opportunity for more.
He believed they should be just as attentive to people’s strengths as their weaknesses, and that psychology should be useful to anyone invested in leading a more fulfilling life.
And so he set out to discover the secret to happiness. His quest led him to identify three different kinds: the pleasant life (pursuing as many short-term pleasures as possible), the good life (learning your strengths and orienting your daily life to use them at home and work), and the meaningful life (using your strengths to serve something larger than yourself).
To help people achieve higher forms of happiness, Seligman developed what he termed “positive interventions.” Some are simple, such as engaging in philanthropy, while others are more nuanced: For a “strengths date,” couples identify their highest strengths (using the free test at authentichappiness.org) and plan an evening that allows each to use them.
The intervention that has consistently proven to be the most meaningful, though, is the gratitude letter.
And How You Can Deliver One
STEP 1/ Think back over the course of your life. Bring to mind someone who has had a transformative impact on you—someone you’ve never properly thanked for their efforts. You may have lost touch with this person, but for this exercise, they must be available for a face-to-face meeting.
STEP 2/ Once you’ve established your gratitude recipient, write them a letter. This should be a focused 300-word thank you that includes a brief synopsis of your own life and explains the impact the recipient has had.
STEP 3/ Reach out to request a visit, but be vague and don’t divulge your intentions. When you arrive, knock on their door and read the letter aloud. Weeping, Seligman says, is common. And both parties experience lasting effects: The exercise resurrects positive memories, reminds people of their strengths, and crystallizes how they’ve contributed to something beyond themselves.
I shared in Why I Believe In Angels and Miracles—Casey’s Epilogue some of my experience with gratitude letters before stumbling on Mr. Graff’s article. I expressed my eternal gratitude to then County Supervisor Ron Roberts for bending many rules so we could visit Jimmy at the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s office on that Saturday afternoon eight hours after he was accidentally struck and killed by a car. I sent a letter to Chaplain Joe Davis for coming into the Examiner’s Office on his day off and sitting with us, praying with us and comforting us on the most excruciatingly painful day of our lives. I profusely thanked then UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox for making it possible for Jimmy’s memorial service to be held at the Mandeville Auditorium on the La Jolla campus to accommodate the over 1,000 mourners in attendance. A memorial service had never before been held at the Auditorium, and UCSD’s staff pulled all of the countless details together in a matter of 5 days.
It was our dear friend, my law partner and mentor, John Davies, who made all of the above possible. He and Ron were close friends and John had asked Ron to do anything he could to “make it happen.” Ron even went to the Examiner’s Office to see Jimmy before we got there to “make sure we’d be able to handle it.” John had served as the Chair of the University of California Board of Regents for several years and was a friend and colleague of Chancellor Fox.
And yet, this was only the tip of the iceberg of all the things John Davies had done for me and my family over the years, both professionally and personally.
So in 2011, after John had let us know of his “death-sentence-diagnosis” of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, my assignment—very similar to Michael Graff’s—was clear. I wrote this story about it and posted it on WMSB in 2016.
I cried as I wrote my letter of gratitude to John. I cried when I handed it to him. And I cried when I got his letter a few days later on my birthday.
It felt good and never did I feel closer to John than at that moment—while he was still with us.
It was meaningful. It was healing for me.
Of course, my letter couldn’t “heal” the cancer ravaging John’s body. But I think it did help with what might be “next” for him. We talked a lot about what happens “next.” He wasn’t sure if there was a “next,” but he said he’d keep an open mind after hearing of my experiences with my dad and Jimmy.
We all know what it feels like to receive gratitude and be thanked for something we did for someone—particularly something above and beyond the norm. We may react all humble and dismissive—‘oh, it was really nothing’—but gratitude turns on a light that glows inside us.
The feeling is the same, if not greater, when you sincerely, deeply, thank someone for impacting and/or changing your life.
And it is so easy!
I know Dr. Seligman suggests reading the letter to the recipient. That may be really hard for most of us, particularly if it is someone we have lost touch with. That’s ok. Find them, write the letter (avoid email if possible) and mail the letter to them with your contact information. Undoubtedly, they will reach back to you, and you can take it from there.
Dr. Seligman also says the recipient should be alive, but I would not feel constrained by that. As I’ve shared before, we have the ability to maintain, strengthen and even repair relationships with loved ones who have transitioned. Even relationships we thought forever broken by death or things we regret happened before they transitioned.
After I received “the letter” from my father, I wrote long letters to him. Letters of gratitude for being my father, his love, everything he did for me. Letters of forgiveness for leaving us too soon. And I know my father “received” those messages that helped to rebuild our relationship.
So, why not give it a try? Let me know what happens, and we’ll share our experiences with our letters of gratitude. I know you will write something beautiful. I’m going to start with Mrs. Wolf.