It cost nothing but remains one of the highlights of my life.
I was a psychologist, doing a course in positive psychology about 10 years ago with Professor Martin Seligman. Cultivating gratitude, on purpose, he said, increased well-being, becoming an antidote to depression. One exercise was to write a gratitude letter.
We were to think of someone we felt grateful to for the specific things they had done for us, it might be a teacher, mentor, employer, friend, or, of course, a parent. Concentrate on the positives and leave out the negatives; the negatives being all too easy to focus on. Edit the letter until you got it right. According to Seligman the gratitude letter lifted people's mood for up to six months after sharing it with the letter's recipient.
I had a good relationship with my father, but like any son, there had been frustrations, some disappointments. But by now I was a parent too, with three daughters, and knew how impossible it is to be the ideal parent, no matter how good ones intentions. As I wrote, all the irritations that I had previously thought important were distilled out.
The final letter, a page long, spoke of examples when I had felt loved and supported by him; grateful for personal traits he had modelled; and new perspectives I'd gained from him. It also spoke of my respect for his constancy in my parent's marriage, something I now had an adult perspective on.
Seligman suggested meeting with the letter's recipient, reading it out to them if they were still alive, creating a stronger effect than simply posting it.
My mother had died years before and Dad was living on his own in the family home. He was elderly (90 years old) and although his health was stable, it was on my mind that he mightn't have long to live.
On the day, I sat almost knee-to-knee with him by the dining-room table, nervous. His gaze fixed on me through his heavy glasses, his head bent forward attentively, his hearing aid turned up. As I read, I found myself choking with unexpected emotion (the hardest thing I've ever read), but his encouraging smile pulled me through.
When I'd finished he said, 'Thank you Dave, you've been a wonderful son.' After that, the kettle went on the stove and we had a cup of tea together: our family's ritual.
As Seligman had predicted, I was on a high for months afterwards. It was Dad's beaming face and his comment, 'you've been a wonderful son' that was like a newfound treasure.
I thought that would be it, but there was more to come.
Dad became very sick two years later, his heart tired and his desire to eat evaporating. My siblings and I had time to visit him knowing he would soon be gone from us.
As I sat with him on those last days, as heavy as the feeling was, I also felt liberated. I knew he did not fear death and there were no unresolved grievances, nothing left unsaid between us. The letter had done its job; I could simply be with him in the moment.
The gratitude that the writing and reading of my letter evoked in me 10 years ago remains. When I recall that day, as I often do, I bathe again in the memory of being a 'wonderful son' to a wonderful father.
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