“You have to take risks. We will only understand the miracle of life fully when we allow the unexpected to happen.” — Paulo Coelho
Each year is a transition. We let go of relationships, connections to places, jobs and ways of being. But this opens us to new people, new associations and different ways of relating. Through death or circumstance or choice we move away from those we loved, or cared for, or knew: The unknown, the surprise, the unexpected takes their place. This is life.
Too often the losses weigh us down with a centrifugal sadness that keeps us pinned to the passing. Our energy is invested in the mourning, often for longer than what may be healthy or helpful.
But the loss we experience is directly proportional to the joy and love and engagement we’ve had. We feel the pain because we knew the joy. So the grieving must honor the connection as well.
The research on gratitude keeps demonstrating how powerful a positive intervention of having gratitude in our lives can be. To acknowledge someone for being in your life is one of the most dynamic ways to increase your well-being and the well-being of others. This exercise works best if you write it down, and even better if you can deliver a letter of gratitude to the person involved. Here’s how it works.
Think of a person who has been a positive person in your life, but with whom you are no longer involved. Write out a letter of gratitude for the positive features of your relationship.
If it is possible and appropriate, meaning that it would not cause harm, embarrassment or upset to the other person, find them. Track them down and read them the letter. This is the famous gratitude visit exercise researched by Martin Seligman, the positive psychology researcher.
If they are unavailable or have died, read the letter out loud to an empty chair. Let them know how much you appreciate who they are (were) and the joy and gratitude you have for them being (or have been) in your life.
Now for the interesting part: Reverse roles. Sit in the empty chair and become them for the role play. As them, respond to the letter that was just read to you.
Finally, come back into your own chair and say the final things you wish to say. Notice how you feel. Yes, they may no longer be in your life, but honoring the joys they brought you can help them if they are available, and you feel better if it is done through an empty chair. I call this second method the Virtual Gratitude Visit (VGV).
There may be others you would like to share your gratitude with. New research has show that gratitude toward God is perhaps one of the most powerful ways to evoke feelings of well-being. With a VGV you may want to express your gratitude toward God. Yes, it is okay to reverse roles and become him, but don’t forget to come back to your own chair. Otherwise you are going to find a lot of prayer requests in your email inbox.
Last but not least, as we transition into the New Year, perform a VGV toward the people we haven’t met. When I think back to last January and the people I said goodbye to over the year, literally several dozen new people came into my life who have filled me with unexpected joy and hope and wonderment. Gratitude can be used to open us up to the future. Try a VGV with a person you haven’t met yet but know you are scheduled to meet, or to the unknown, unexpected encounters you are bound to have. You may even want to express your gratitude toward a future self, the person you are becoming over the next year.
Finally, when the dust from the VGVs settles down, take a moment and review the year. Notice your breath. Just like people and events in our life, our breath is drawn in and released. We don’t hold on or just breathe out: we take in and let go. What we are left with is the stuff of life.
We began with the words of the brilliant Brazilian lyricist and novelist, Paulo Coelho. I don’t think anyone could say it more clearly than him, so it seems fitting to end with his thoughts as well. “When someone leaves, it’s because someone else is about to arrive.”
Rosmarin, D.H., Pirutinsky, S., Cohen. A., Galler, Y., & Krumrei, E.J. (2011). Grateful to God or just plain grateful? A study of religious and non-religious gratitude. Journal of Positive Psychology, 6(5), 389-396.
Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410.
Tomasulo, D. (2011). Can God and Gratitude Help Your Mental Health?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 27, 2011, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives /2011/12/11/can-god-and-gratitude-help-your-mental-health/