Years ago I was given a gift by my late sister-in-law, Grace. That gift, over time, has evolved into a ritual much like a grain of sand creates a pearl. Because it’s bittersweet, this gift. Just like the grain of sand in the oyster, it causes friction and discomfort before the beauty emerges.

Grace was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer when she was 39. She fought valiantly with great courage and, well, grace. She was a woman capable of great love and had an unwavering faith. It was this winning combination (along with an incredible family and a stubborn northern Maine constitution) that enabled her to long-surpass her 18 month prognosis, living a full five years beyond what was expected.

In the last days of her life, I wrote Grace a letter offering to help record her thoughts and lessons on life, love and loss for her children to read some day. At the time, they were ages 9 and 12, and I imagined she was full of information, advice and instructions for them knowing they would be growing up without her in their life everyday.

She accepted my invitation and I remember how honored I felt by the intimacy of that moment. We began each session with Grace selecting a topic from a “menu” of questions that covered topics like faith, community service, marriage, love, sex, education, parenting and beyond. She would talk and I would write. When she’d had enough, I’d go home and transcribe it, print it, put on a clipboard with a red pen and drop it off at the hospital for her to edit. And edit she would! I’d make the changes and show her again. Then we’d capture some more. And so we proceeded until we had pages and pages of her thoughts written down in her own “voice.”

Grace died the following week. As the family grieved and clung together over the next few months, I watched how those “Grace Letters” comforted first her husband, and then her children. Their dad would read excerpts to them periodically as a way of gently touching the tenderness of what they were feeling and offering some solace and connection to their mom at a time when they needed her most.

The experience of helping Grace to write those letters was the gift of a lifetime. It’s also a gift that keeps giving.

Every year, as I take myself away for my birthday retreat to reflect, I have a ritual of writing each of my boys a Grace Letter before I return home. In it, I thank them for the privilege of mothering them, and I recount some of the lessons they’ve taught me. I also share a bit of my own perspective on life as it relates to where they are developmentally or what I’m witnessing in each of them. Most recently, I’ve taken to writing these letters in a special book, so that they’re all in one location rather than floating about the house. It’s a gift, that book – to me and to my family. I don’t wait to read the letters to them either (it’s not my style, to wait.) Having done this ritual now for four years, they have come to expect their letters and are excited to hear what’s in them each year.

When I sat with Grace nearly four years ago, I watched as she fretted about what to include – it all felt so important, and time was limited. I can still hear her saying, “where do I begin?” I learned from Grace that we are all in the process of dying, she just knew her death was coming sooner than later. She left me with a deep appreciation of “beginning now” – writing the story as it unfolds. Loving the story as it unfolds, with all its twists and turns and uncertainty.

I received many, many gifts from Grace, but I’ll always be thankful for the one that helped me to see life for what it is – a gift to be opened each day. My Grace Letters are the red bow that ties together a whole year of my days.

Thank you, Grace.