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November 3rd, 2015

Saying "Thank You"

Ilyssa Kyu
Senior Researcher & Strategist

As the national holiday for thankfulness is upon us, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on something we often take for granted—the opportunity to be grateful.

This weekend while cleaning, I came across a business card of a woman I met nearly three years ago at a conference. We shared great conversation over dinner one night and after words of wisdom and encouragement, she gave me her card with some recommendations for somebody to get in touch with and a project to look into. When our group was ordering another round of drinks and I sheepishly asked about the cost, she insisted on paying for my portion of the bill.

She told me she knew I was just starting out my career and that I shouldn't worry about it, to order as much as I wanted—her treat.

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I hung onto her business card and a couple of years ago, I found it in an old wallet and decided to clip it to my “to-do” project board. I saved it with the intention of reaching out to her one day, to thank her again for her generosity. However, at the time, it didn’t feel like enough to write an email just to thank her so long after the point.

Life taught me to feel that moment had passed, that my earnest but quick “Thank You” that evening was sufficient. I decided to save it for another time—perhaps if I was ever swinging through Baltimore, where she lived and wanted to reconnect or if I ever needed a professional contact or advice from somebody who was in a senior position in my field.

My “Thank You” was going to be a pawn for something else.

I never forgot her generosity and kindness, her spirit and the impact she made on me in just one night but I never followed up with her. 

Zoom forward several years and, after intentionally practicing being thankful and appreciating each other at P’unk Ave – a ritual of our weekly Monday team meetings and  P’unk Retreats – I learned firsthand the true sense of happiness that being grateful can bring (David Steindl-Rast has a great TED talk on this). 

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When I found her card clipped behind a stack of other “to-do’s” this weekend, I decided to shoot her an email just to thank her. 

The email bounced back immediately, so I did a quick Google search in the hopes of finding her new email address assuming she moved on to another position. 

That is when I learned she died, from cancer. Six months ago.

It took me not even a couple of minutes to write this email but I was six months too late. Heck, I was three years too late. 

I felt compelled to reach out to her best friend, the name written on the business card she gave me, and who she mentioned a couple of times on her Tumblr chronicling her fight with cancer. This friend is a professor at a prominent university in Philadelphia, so it was easy to track down her email. I shared my experience with her, the impact her friend made on me and a photo of the card I had with her name written on it. 

I am not sure why I needed to reach out – maybe I thought seeing her name written by her friend would bring her some solace or a happy memory of her kind friend – but mostly, I wanted to share my gratitude for her friend and I had totally missed my chance. Her friend was the only connection I had left with her, since her name was scrawled across the business card I couldn’t stop staring at after I learned this news. I received this response from her the next morning:

“Dear Ilyssa

I gasped when I read this – her ghost does still haunt and I am so very grateful you took the time to write this note.  It has moved me deeply, and it is stunning to see how she continues to move people, even from the other side.

All the best to you”

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When we are little, one of the first things we are taught to say when something is given to you is “Thank You,” the same way we are taught to say “Bless You” immediately after somebody sneezes—an almost knee-jerk reaction. It’s the polite and proper thing to do, but we move on from it quickly, even when we really mean it.

To truly feel and express being thankful, it must come from a place of realizing we are grateful. Being grateful is the act of feeling or expressing kindness—something that many of us don’t do enough of.

Being grateful requires slowing down and hitting pause. Many of us don’t feel like we ever have enough time. Frankly, sometimes it feels just plain uncomfortable or strange to pause and express it—like we’re worried somebody might misinterpret our intentions. We live in a culture driven by speed and immediacy, and we replace intentional human interactions – some that are joyful and some that are hard – with digital ones, using social media and our digital tools to convey our feelings. 

Because of this, many of us have forgotten to express and share our gratitude for each other—we’re just racing through life. 

We reserve holidays for being grateful for somebody – Thanksgiving, Veteran’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day – yet many of us forget to even express or reflect on it at the dinner table or on the days we’re given off from work to celebrate them. And during the other days of the year, many of us forget or don’t know how to express it when it is relevant or on time. 

I share this story because I was too late to say 'Thank You.'

If there is somebody you should say “Thank You” to, don't wait. Make the time and do it now.

Ilyssa Kyu
Senior Researcher & Strategist