By Donald CalhounHave you ever had the opportunity to be with someone you care for during their final moments of life? Most people don’t realize the gift this time together can be for both the participant and the observer. This past year, my mother-in-law Ann ended a 10 year battle with Alzheimer’s, as she passed away in front of loving children and her husband at the nursing home. Ann was a part of a new concept in caring for the dying called “hospice.” It included an interdisciplinary team of doctors, nurses, social workers and chaplains who helped care for the whole person who was dying and supported the entire family during the death and mourning process. I was able to stand shoulder to shoulder with my wife Katie, her father Richard and her siblings. The experience was transcendent. Heaven was in full glorious bloom amidst the depths of epic tragedy, a loss of a glorious and beautiful mother, friend and individual. A dash of Heaven was revealed at the end of Ann’s earthly journey. When someone we love is dying it can be hard to know what to do, what to say or how to help? How do we go about having the Talk of a Lifetime? I ran across a book called “The Four Things That Matter Most” by Ira Byock, M.D.A that provides a simple guide to use during these difficult situations:
Part 1 – The Four Things ‘Please forgive me’, ‘I forgive you’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I love you’ are four simple phrases with enormous power, which are important to say to people we care about, even if we might think that they are already implicitly understood. We can often hang on to grudges unconsciously, creating distance and eroding joy in our relationships, without realizing what we are missing as a result. These four things are what matters most to people who are dying, because when we face death, suddenly our relationships assume paramount importance. We want to express love and appreciation, and to say goodbye. We are sustained by the knowledge that we are loved and appreciated in return. When people die suddenly, we may regret having left some of these things unsaid, so rather than leave it until it may be too late, it is worth saying them now. If we make sure to tell our loved ones what they mean to us, we can achieve a feeling of completeness such that we could die today without regrets, having left nothing unsaid or undone. Any relationship can be fixed and transformed permanently – it is never too late. When facing death, barriers can suddenly melt away, and hard people become soft and vulnerable, warm and trusting. The last moments before death can completely reframe our memories of a person. Part 2 – Forgiveness Nobody’s life is perfect, and there will always be regrettable memories, which we wish we’d handled differently at the time. We are all fallible human beings, but all nonetheless worthy of love and acceptance, just the way we are. We must come to terms with our mistakes, and accept ourselves, warts and all, rather than pretending to be something else, because if we don’t feel worthy of love and acceptance in ourselves, we will reject them when they are offered to us by others. We should aim to treat ourselves and others with patience and understanding, love and acceptance, and forgiveness. Forgiveness is not the same as exoneration: forgiveness accepts the past for what it was, without necessarily excusing it. If we do not address issues with someone we’re close to, they can continue to haunt us even after the other person has died, and though it is possible to achieve resolution after the event, it is much easier and more powerful to do so while they are still alive. People hurt each other out of insecurity and defensiveness, and if we fight fire with fire, we just perpetuate the cycle, whereas if we instead choose to forgive, we can generate healing on all sides. Even if others fail to respond in kind, we will be able to feel good about ourselves, and rid ourselves of any lingering guilt regarding our part of the story. Treating people with love and compassion is cathartic for both sides, and when our turn comes to be the one needing to be cared for, it serves everyone’s best interests if we can switch roles and allow others to take care of us. Part 3 – Thank You Everyone benefits when we express and accept appreciation without restraint. We shouldn’t do good deeds solely to receive thanks, but there is no need to reject appreciation simply to prove the point. If we cannot accept thanks, we will struggle to express them too. Life is short, and if we remember to really appreciate it instead of taking it for granted, we can infuse every moment with joy. Defenses push people away, and make them become defensive too. It only takes one side to change the dynamics of a relationship, and it is never too late to do so. Change is a part of life, and family dynamics are especially subject to it, with children requiring increased independence as they grow up, and less control and interference from their parents. Although we all die in the end, we all retain the capability for significant change and growth until that very last day. Part 4 – I Love You There are many ways to communicate love, and if events of the past make saying the actual words too difficult in certain circumstances, then the door can be opened by way of a letter or recorded message, or a tender touch. Life is precious, and we should try to live it as fully as possible, in love and gratitude. Remembering that life is temporary can free us from false pretenses and pointless strife in our lives, and open up space for intense joy instead. Life goes on when our loved ones die, and the best remedy for grief is to embrace life. Part 5 – Goodbye A well-said farewell to a loved one, whether we are the one leaving or one left behind, can turn the sadness of parting into an epiphany of love and appreciation. The need to say goodbye can give us the strength to undertake arduous journeys or even delay death until it has been satisfied. Saying farewell is much easier if we have made the Four Things part of our relationships, and our loving goodbyes can even outlast us if we leave messages to be opened by our loved ones at specific events in their future after we are gone.If we fully understand and accept the fact, that our time could be up today, tomorrow, next week, or thirty years from now, we have it within our capacity to understand that this moment is a blessing, a gift and a present. We need to try to live in the present, not the future, nor the past, to manifest the real gift of life. We can only control our perceptions and actions in the moment. Forest Gump said: “Life is like a box of chocolates… you never know what you’re gonna get.” Unfortunately, for most of us, it takes a good whack on the side of the head, or a major traumatic event to evoke change, or an understanding of this concept. Let’s join the adventuresome folks in the world not to be bound by the shackles of conformity, familiarity, safety and blazing mediocrity. We can embrace change, fears and anxiety. Our challenges and tragedies should be accepted and received as gifts, instruments of change, and something that we can learn from. Change and death produce growing levels of complexity, understanding, but in the end can be a beautiful, glorious, and peaceful blessing. Don’t wait. Have the Talk of a Lifetime with your loved ones today.