Writing Letters to Express Lasting Gratitude 

By Lynette M. Smith

Remember how heartwarming it was to discover a collection of Great Aunt Tilly’s letters in the attic? To read them was to savor them; to hear her loving voice all over again, to feel her in your heart, and to send your love back to her.

These days, what are the chances of discovering even your own parents’ letters? Unless you’re an older Baby Boomer, odds are slim. In most families, email and social media posts and texting have usurped that important tangible written source of family legacy. It’s highly unlikely that someday your children will discover a collection of your emails, lovingly written and printed out, tied together with a ribbon, and stored in the top dresser drawer.

Let me tell you a story.

Back in November 2008, at the wedding rehearsal dinner of our son, Byron, we were surprised and moved by his fiancée’s and his loving gesture when they each presented a framed, heartfelt letter of appreciation to their own parents. Each letter described what it was like growing up in the family, what qualities they most admired about each parent, and what values they had learned from their parents that they planned to bring to their own marriage. Believe me, when their maid of honor and best man read the letters aloud as the bride- and groom-to-be stood beside their respective parents, all eyes filled with loving tears.

The two of them had come up with this thoughtful gesture on their own. We display our letter proudly in our home, and every time I read it, I feel just as moved as the first time it was read to us. Now that’s a lasting effect! And I can assure you, it will last even longer after we’re gone, because I’m confident our son will display our letter in his own home and save it for his children and their children. Through Byron’s letter, all his descendants will know more about what he found worthwhile in his parents—their ancestors.

You too can leave such a legacy — for your parents, your spouse, or your children; for a brother or sister; for a favorite aunt, uncle, or grandparent; for a dear friend, mentor, or former teacher. How? By writing a heartfelt letter of appreciation.

Indeed, you never know how big a difference your letter will make. Some people consider suicide because they feel their lives have no meaning. What if they were to receive a timely letter of appreciation from even one person, telling them they have made a positive difference? With such tangible evidence of self-worth available to read whenever they feel low, might lives be saved and improved?

Write and refine your letter.

There’s no need to be intimidated at the prospect of writing. Just follow these simple steps, composing either on a ruled tablet or on your computer:

  1. Describe a shared memory that you both treasure.
  2. Discuss the person’s most admirable qualities, perhaps citing past examples of those traits in action.
  3. Describe the positive difference made in your life or in the lives of others.
  4. Express your gratitude, then hand-sign your letter.

That was your first draft. Let it rest for at least a day, and then reread it and make any desired revisions. That will be your second draft.

Do you know someone who will keep a confidence and who also has a good command of spelling and grammar? Ask that person to serve as an editor and review your second draft to see if you can make it even better.

Ready? Write your third draft on quality stationery. Cursive writing or hand printing is nice, but a computer printed letter (still on good stationery or with an attractive border) with a handwritten signature is also acceptable, particularly if your letter is to be framed for presentation. (Note: Toner withstands humidity better than computer ink; so if you use an ink jet printer, pay your local copy center to photocopy your unsigned letter onto quality paper and then sign it.)

Present your letter.

Try to present your letter personally—perhaps on a special occasion, such as a birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Grandparents Day, or after a nice homemade meal or during a dinner out. You can even giftwrap it. Otherwise, you can mail your letter, but mail it flat in a large envelope—and even within a certificate folder—to give it more impact.

If you wish, let the occasion or your talents spark some ideas for enhancing the presentation:

  • Provide a video (make eye contact!) or audio recording of you reading the letter.
  • Make a collage or scrapbook or slide show of photos of the two of you.
  • Write a poem to accompany your letter.
  • Sing a song (perhaps one you’ve composed).
  • Create fine art, perhaps a portrait in pencil, pen-and-ink, or charcoal.
  • Draw cartoons or a comic strip starring your special person.

What if it’s too late to write?

You may be thinking: “If only I had written to Grandpa Ellis while he was still alive, to tell him how much I loved him and to thank him for teaching me so many important life values that have continued to serve me and my family. But now it’s too late.”

But is it really too late? I don’t believe so. You can still experience catharsis by writing him a letter. Compose it as if he were hearing your words. Pour your heart out and write all the things you always wanted to convey. Then refine your letter, just as you would if he were alive.

Now “present” your letter in a way that is meaningful to you. Consider lighting candles in a quiet room or else sitting beside a peaceful stream, on the beach, in the desert, or in a garden, as you read your letter aloud. If you sense Grandpa Ellis’s presence, rejoice in that special connection. Once you’ve read your letter, and depending on the nature and degree of privacy expressed within it, you may either save it, bury it, burn it, hand-shred it and cast it to the four winds, or present it to your children to keep as part of their family’s legacy.

Your gratitude letter can change the world.

Imagine what it would be like to receive and read a heartfelt letter of appreciation. Learning that you’d made a positive difference would make you feel good, wouldn’t it? It would help bring meaning to your life. You’d probably be inspired to make a positive difference in others’ lives as well, which would change your world and theirs for the better.

You might even decide to write appreciation letters to people who’ve made a difference in your own life. They’d feel acknowledged as well, and the focus on gratitude would be compounded. Every appreciation letter written and received would further incline the world’s citizens towards love and gratitude and away from fear.

That’s something worth writing for.

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04a Lynette Smith HeadshotLynette M. Smith is a professional copyeditor (AllMyBest.com) and author of the comprehensive reference book, How to Write Heartfelt Letters to Treasure: For Special Occasions and Occasions Made Special, available at all major online retailers and from her publishing and letter-writing website, GoodWaysToWrite. com. Questions? Contact Lynette through her website or at Lynette@GoodWaysToWrite. com, and connect with her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/GoodWaysToWrite) and LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/ lynettemsmith).