Why I Wrote a Thank-You Note to My Dead Grandmother

Late Saturday night, long after the trick-or-treaters had filled their buckets after my loud neighbors finished what I can only assume was a full-blown EDM rave in the middle of the suburbs, and even after my two-week-old daughter went down for her nighttime stretch, I wrote a thank you note to my dead grandmother.

Not an email. Not a journal entry. Not even on my personal stationery, no matter how proud she would be to see “Rabbi” before her grandson’s name. I used the nicest thank you note I could find, with a laser-cut tree of life on the front and a collage of stunning yet subtle colors splashed on the envelope. I remember – a couple of years back – looking around a local bookstore for books on gratitude and stumbling upon these beautiful notes in the very same section of the store as all the books on happiness. I joked to my wife: “Someone is gonna have to do something really special to get a card like this…”

It turns out that in the two years since I bought the notes, nine people already had them because this was the last one left in the box.

It’s been almost 20 years since my grandmother passed away. But her legacy lives on, and I’m grateful for every bit of it. At a time in my life when sleep is hard to come by, and every decision feels monumental, I thanked her for teaching me to laugh. Not polite laughter, either. Full-bellied, stomach-aching laughter, even when laughter seems totally impossible. The type of laughter that carries you through hard times, that puts life into perspective, that reconstitutes a bitter moment with pure sweetness.

Grandma died just a few months before her son, my father, was diagnosed with cancer. But I have a feeling that she would have found a way to make him laugh in that moment, too.

So why write a thank you note to someone who is no longer around to receive it? There’s a text in Jewish tradition that teaches us that prayer doesn’t actually affect God. Only us. And just as prayers can change the pray-er, thank you notes have a profound effect upon their writer. We know they can make you happier and more satisfied with life, and I can attest to the fact that they help me to feel more grounded and connected, too.

So try it. Write one. And don’t wait until a major life moment when you’ve got a hundred of them to write (“Thanks so much for the salad tongs!”). Start the practice now:

  1. Sit quietly for a few minutes, focusing on one aspect of your life for which you feel grateful. Anything you can think of will work.
  2. Reflect on who or what had a hand in making it possible.
  3. Thank them. Profusely. And specifically. Use vivid details about your source of gratitude. Paint a picture with your words.
  4. Don’t seal it yet. First, sit quietly once you’re done. Three more minutes should do it. Reflect on what you just wrote, and if there’s anything else you need to say, say it – that’s why the back of thank you notes is blank.
  5. Seal it and send it. Or – if you’re like me and you wrote to someone who isn’t around to receive it – don’t.

It’s been almost two decades since my grandmother last made me laugh in person. It was from her hospital bed when she made some off-color joke, probably about her worsening condition. But on Saturday night, as I scribbled a note to her by the dim light of a reading lamp, she somehow did it again. And I thank her for it.

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