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May 10, 2016 / Retirementallychallenged.com

GratiTuesday: The ripple effect of simple acts of kindness

In my last GratiTuesday post, I wrote about my first grade teacher and how a group of her former students had honored her at a luncheon. We all had fond memories of having her as our teacher and were grateful to have the opportunity to thank her in person so many years later.

There’s actually a little more to the story that I’d like to share. It is a detail that taught me – in two very important ways – how simple actions can still have a profound effect many years later.

Soon after my mother passed away in 2000—when I was still rocking from my grief and loss—I came home to find the message light blinking on my answering machine. The call had been from my first grade teacher, Miss Miller, who I hadn’t seen since elementary school. She said that she had read my mother’s obituary and wanted to let me know how sorry she was… then she shared a story.

Letters1

Miss Miller told me about a letter my mother had written to her almost 40 years prior, just after I had completed the school year in her class. In the letter, my mother said what an inspiring teacher Miss Miller was and that the positive experience I had taught me that learning could be both fun and gratifying.

In Miss Miller’s message to me, she shared how much the letter meant to her. When she received it, she was new to teaching and my mother’s kind words gave her much-needed acknowledgement and encouragement.  She said the she had kept the letter and re-read it many times over the years. After saying good-bye, she hung up without leaving her contact information or any hint of how I could return her call.

If you’ve ever lost someone you’ve loved, you may know how much it can mean to hear stories about how they made a difference in someone’s life. More than all the well-meaning “I’m sorry for your loss” and “Please let me know if I can help in any way,” these personal stories help to ease the sorrow and keep the memory of your loved-one alive.

Since it was pre-Google when Miss Miller left her phone message, I was unable to locate her. The phone book didn’t have a listing for her and my former elementary school wasn’t any help. I wanted so badly to let her know how much her message meant to me but I was at an impasse in my search.

So, that is a big reason why—over 50 years after being her student and 15 years after her phone message—when I found out that not only was Miss Miller alive and well, but that a classmate was still in contact with her, I jumped at the chance to re-connect. I finally had the opportunity to tell her how much I appreciated her phone message and how grateful I was that she took the time to make the call. It was a thank you I thought I would never be able to deliver, and I admit there were a few tears when I did.

My gratitude to Miss Miller goes beyond her being a great first grade teacher, it extends to two important lessons she taught me years later by making one simple phone call:

  • Never miss an opportunity to write a letter of appreciation or encouragement. Your kind words will mean so much to the receiver and can lift them up well beyond the first reading. An email will do in a pinch, but nothing has the impact of a hand-written note.
  • When someone passes away, if you have a positive story or remembrance about them, share it with their loved-ones. Tell them how the person made a difference; share a funny story; express your admiration. Sharing how that person impacted your life—and the positive outcome it had—will help to buoy them in their grief.

Thank you Miss Miller. Lessons learned.

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35 Comments

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  1. joannesisco / May 10 2016 5:16 pm

    Your advice is so sound. I too have been on the receiving end of both notes of encouragement and stories about both my father and mother when they passed away. Those stories are so touching and precious. They also give us insight into our loved ones we might not otherwise have had.

    A few years ago, I reached out to a person who had been a great inspiration for me in my career. I frequently got notes of congratulations and encouragement from him over the years. When I retired from my job, I contacted him – he was well into his 90’s at that point – to thank him and tell him how much his notes had meant to me over the years.
    We had a lovely conversation and he gave me great advice on retirement.
    He passed away less than a month later.
    I am SOOO grateful I made the effort to reach out to him. I would have had such a huge sense of loss and lack of closure if I hadn’t.

    Time is shorter than we think and reaching out to people should never be put off for *someday*.

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 12 2016 11:51 am

      I love your example of reaching out. Often we think that we will do something “one-of-these-days” because, of course, we have nothing but time. Not true, as your story illustrates. I’m so glad you took the time to contact your friend and mentor – I bet your thanks meant the world to him.

      • joannesisco / May 12 2016 12:04 pm

        Thanks Janis. He was genuinely surprised and flattered. This last correspondence meant the world to me. I’m so glad I overcame my shyness and just did it!

  2. dconnollyislandgmailcom / May 10 2016 5:33 pm

    Thank you for the beautiful and thought-provoking post, Janis. I totally agree with Joan that time IS shorter than we think. You have given us a great reminder to seize the opportunity for meaningful and positive action whenever we can.
    Donna
    http://www.retirementreflections.com

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 12 2016 11:55 am

      And, now that we are retired, we have more time to reach out with a phone call or a note of thanks. There are so many people who have supported me throughout the years, and I hope to thank as many as I can. It just takes a few moments and will mean so much – both to the recipient and to me.

  3. Polly Huffman / May 10 2016 6:35 pm

    She gave you a lovely gift and years later you gave her a lovely gift. I’m so glad for both you.

  4. Anabel Marsh / May 11 2016 12:45 am

    I unexpectedly spotted an old uni professor on the guest list of a dinner in a place neither of us lived. I sought him out to tell him how much I had enjoyed his course 35 years before and he said I made his night! That made me feel good too. Also, it pinpointed for him the year the course started, which he had been struggling to remember, because I knew I was in the first group to take it. So I agree. Always pass it on!

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 12 2016 11:58 am

      Wow, I’m so glad that you had the opportunity to tell your professor how much he meant to you. I bet he was thrilled that you made the effort to thank him.

  5. Keith / May 11 2016 6:10 am

    Janis, your true story is so touching and inspiring. Your mother knew her letter would be well-received, but even she underestimated its lifelong impact. We should not miss opportunities to thank people or remind folks of the humanity of lost loved ones. Thank you for telling more of the story. Keith

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 12 2016 12:03 pm

      My only regret was that my mother would never know how much her letter meant to Miss Miller. But, my mom was always doing nice things for others, so I’m sure she was aware of the positive impact her efforts had. I fear sometimes that we are losing the art of writing – actually writing – notes of appreciation and thanks.

  6. Kate Crimmins / May 11 2016 6:41 am

    Great story. I am 13 years out from a cancer diagnosis. Back in those days it was a scary diagnosis but I was referred to a great doc who specialized in my cancer. He was fabulous. He was comforting while I cried. He explained things to my husband when I sat with a daze on my face. He always told me the truth but kindly. He is retiring. Last week I sent him a letter telling him how much he meant to my recovery. Yesterday the letter was returned. It seems that the “office” address is different from the mailing address (and there is no crossover). Today I am personally delivering the letter to his office. I think people need to know they made a difference. I had a few of those experiences when I retired. I gave a presentation a few days after I announced my retirement and told people that we need to tell people in real time what a difference they make. Sometimes we chug through life wondering if what we do matters. Your mother was one in a million!

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 12 2016 12:10 pm

      What a great story about your doctor! I would love to know the follow-up of your hand-delivered letter. I bet he was incredibly touched by your words of thanks and admiration. I’m so glad that you included a reminder to reach out in your presentation. You are so right about getting wrapped up in our day-to-day (even in retirement) that we forget to say thank you to the people who have touched our lives.

  7. rporter610 / May 11 2016 7:27 am

    Janis, what a wonderful memory. The letter your mother wrote to your teacher was such a lovely gesture. As a former teacher, I can confirm that letters and notes like this mean a great deal. It doesn’t take long to write to someone, but it is greatly appreciated. Thanks for sharing this story.

    Rin

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 12 2016 12:12 pm

      I bet all teachers have moments when they wonder what impact they are making. Letters of thanks can make all the hassles and challenges worth while.

  8. laura bruno lilly / May 11 2016 7:50 am

    What a gift…for all three of you: your mother because she reaped the good things the teacher placed in you her child; your teacher because we all need to know we make a difference; and yourself because a bit of your mother was cherished by another and was now given back to you. Full circle.

  9. betsysbeat / May 11 2016 8:33 am

    You made me cry! And it made me think of all the notes of encouragement and thanks that I have received and KEPT over the years. I have a basket of them that are precious. I am not usually a pack rat but I will not part with them – I periodically go through and re-read them. If anything they have become more precious over the years. How wonderful that your mothers note touched and impacted both you and Miss Miller. Your post is a great reminder to act on those internal prompts to write notes to others!

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 12 2016 12:40 pm

      I bet that almost no one in the process of de-cluttering and off-loading would think of tossing such precious items. Those are the things that really matter and that we keep coming back to time-after-time. How lovely that you have a whole basket of notes of acknowledgement and thanks.

  10. Encore Voyage / May 11 2016 9:22 am

    Janis, what a wonderful idea! I found out when my own parents passed away how much I valued all of the heartfelt cards and letters that came my way. As a result, I never, ever miss the opportunity to send a card when I hear of someone’s passing. I also learned that I go to visit bringing paper products! While others may bring lasagna, I found that we appreciated having pocket packs of Kleenex, and paper coffee cups! Now I will add the “heartfelt story or remembrance” to my arsenal of appreciated gestures when someone loses a loved one. Thanks for teaching me this morning! ~ Lynn

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 12 2016 3:44 pm

      I think some people just don’t know what to say when someone dies but it’s important to reach out. And, if you can add to the memory of the loved one, even better. I never thought to bring paper products when visiting a grieving family. I imagine that the last thing they’d want to face is a pile of dishes when their visitors are gone.

      • Encore Voyage / May 12 2016 5:14 pm

        Exactly! And I figure you’re going to cry on the potty (I know from experience) so I bring the softest TP you can buy!

  11. Carol Ferenc / May 11 2016 1:57 pm

    Thank you for sharing this poignant story, Janis, and the valuable lessons learned. I couldn’t agree more ~ take the time to share those important stories with people. You, your mother and Miss Miller all had wonderful reasons to feel grateful.

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 12 2016 12:31 pm

      I sure hope my post has prompted a few notes of thanks to be written and mailed.

      • Carol Ferenc / May 13 2016 11:50 am

        I have no doubt that it has!

  12. snakesinthegrass2014 / May 11 2016 6:24 pm

    A great memory and certainly a lesson to be learned by all of us. Crazy how Miss Miller was able to find you, but you couldn’t find her!

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 12 2016 12:30 pm

      OK, that’s funny! But, actually, I was in the phone book and my last name is pretty unusual (I think, at the time, my family members were just about the only ones listed in the white pages). And, Miller IS a fairly common name. Come to find out, she wasn’t listed – and a recent Google search didn’t come up with anything either.

  13. Terri Webster Schrandt / May 12 2016 8:36 pm

    It’s still amazing to think she was able to contact you. It is so validating to remember and be remembered by a wonderful mentor. Great post for your gratitude theme!

  14. Kathy Gottberg / May 16 2016 8:19 pm

    Hi Janis! I am finally just getting around to reading this and of course had to leave a comment. How amazing and how wonderful that the simple kindness of your mother extended to Mrs Miller and then back around again. And thank you for your very SMART advice to us all to take the time to share our appreciation with those who have helped those we love, and then to never forget pass that on to those who will cherish that information. Thank you! ~Kathy

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 18 2016 9:54 am

      I worry that in our digital age, many important correspondences won’t be saved so they can be savored later. Emails, and certainly texts, are often deleted as soon as they are read. That’s why I think certain messages should be conveyed by written notes and letters. It takes a little more time, but the impact is so much greater.

  15. lisadorenfest / May 16 2016 10:38 pm

    What an incredible story. Your experience resulted in much wisdom that I will always remember.

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 18 2016 9:46 am

      It can be so easy to make a difference in someone’s life and you may never know what impact it truly has.

  16. Tammi Kale / May 21 2016 4:49 pm

    I love your posts!! I can relate well to this one as I am learning how my life soars as I practice kindness toward those around me and try to do so, at times, without their knowledge of my involvement.

    • Retirementallychallenged.com / May 22 2016 12:20 pm

      It really is true that acts of kindness not only lift the recipient, but the giver also. How great is that!? Thank you for your comment!

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