When I started volunteering at a hospice inpatient residence, my son was about 7, and I was a partner in an entrepreneurial business, auditing courses at a local seminary, and looking after an aging, mostly blind, live-in mother-in-law. I was not, in short, looking for just something else to do. When my friends learned what I’d taken on, their responses varied from, “Wow, I could never do that” to “Why would you do that?” To the latter question, I honestly replied, “I volunteer at hospice so I can get some rest.”
Entering the hospice doors did bring a sense of profound peace – even when the shift was busy or fraught with high emotions or unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or even scary events. Minor irritations or even big (for me) worries seemed to drop away. Every word and gesture took on a sense of deep meaning. Time seemed to stop, and things got real. I also enjoyed going to hospice because I would hear “thank you” more often in one four-hour shift than in four months at home or at work. Among the many other things I learned volunteering for hospice was the power of “thank you.”
Ira Byock, in his landmark work Four Things That Matter Most, says that “thank you” is among the most important things we can say to anyone we care about, whether in the full flush of life or nearing its end. His book shares stories of transformative conversations that include “I forgive you,” “Please forgive me,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.” “Thank you” in that context represents the importance of letting people know how they’ve touched your life and your gratitude for their sacrifices. Spiritual traditions and mental health approaches affirm the importance of gratitude in helping cast life’s setbacks, losses, griefs, and troubles into a more positive light. Gratitude helps us to more readily notice the good and turn our attention away from pain.
All very true, but when I talk about the power of “thank you,” I’m not talking about what could be called the “Big Gratitude” of those profound conversations and dedicated practice. I’m also not talking about the rote recitation of things we’re thankful for that many of us might have recently endured at the Thanksgiving table. I’m definitely not talking about the knee-jerk “Thanks!” that starts or concludes many emails, phone or Zoom calls, or brief interactions.
I’m talking about an occasional, sincere, and intentional statement of thanks, for instance in:
- A handwritten note acknowledging a gift
- An email to a colleague you’ve worked with over the course of a big project or long time to let them know you’ve enjoyed them and learned a lot
- A text to a friend who has helped you through a tough time or just randomly sends you laugh-out-loud memes
- A note to acknowledge that someone went well out of their way to answer your question or dig up some information you needed on short notice
- A letter to a mentor or someone “afar” who has inspired or motivated you in your work
- The groggy “thanks for looking after me” when your child or spouse or roommate puts a cool washcloth on your aching head
In this time of quick-to-offense hypersensitivity, a genuine “thank you” is one phrase no one will be offended to hear. “Thank you” can be, itself, an enormous gift – one that doesn’t require purchasing, wrapping, or worrying whether it will be all right. I hope this doesn’t sound all preachy and woo-woo – that’s not me, and I’m certainly no paragon of gratitude. But I’m working on reminding myself how good it felt to hear “thank you” from people in deep pain and trouble themselves just because I brought them water or changed their sheets or kept them company through a dark night. The power of “thank you” is huge – and something we could all use this season.
Thank YOU for being in our community and for the work you do every day. I mean it.