If you were asked to remember all the things that have mattered most in your life, you probably wouldn’t emphasize things like money or career success. For most people, the “big” successes are the ones that are closer to home—a happy marriage…love for your children, etc.

Sadly, we don’t always treasure our real blessings until later in life, when so much time has passed that it can feel too late to correct mistakes or make up for lost time.

Regret is among the most common emotions that people feel in their later years. Regret that once-valued friendships ended in misunderstandings…that you didn’t tell your spouse how much he/she was loved instead of letting yourself grow distant…or how proud you were of your children instead of only harping on what they were not doing well.

You can’t change the past, but you can give your loved ones (and yourself) comfort and closure. The Stanford “Dear Friends and Family” Letter Project can help.

The project, created by researchers at Stanford University, has shown that nearly everyone can benefit when he/she completes seven life-review tasks—acknowledging who was important in your life…remembering special moments…apologizing to those you may have hurt…forgiving those who have hurt you…expressing gratitude for the love you’ve received…telling those close how much you’ve loved them…and saying good-bye.

People need to take these steps to avoid leaving their loved ones with unanswered questions and lifetimes of regret. Some examples: A man with terminal cancer recorded a letter because he was emotionally unable to directly tell his Marine son (who followed in his footsteps) how proud he was…a father wrote to his daughter to apologize for not being present in her life…a woman penned a letter to a friend to wipe an old debt off the books.

Your loved ones need to know how much you’ve cared. Once you’ve written a letter, you can share it with them immediately…or put it away to be read after you’re gone. Letter templates are available on the website Med.stanford.edu/letter/friendsandfamily.html. There’s a version to use if you’re healthy and another if you have a serious chronic illness.

The letter won’t be easy to write, but it could prove to be one of the most important things you’ve ever done.

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