A friend of mine is probably in her last week of life. It really brings things up for us when someone we care about is dying, especially when it comes suddenly, perhaps as a result of an injury. So it was with my friend. She lost her balance on the curb of a street, hit her head on concrete and suffered brain injury.
She awakened briefly from her coma and we were able to catch up and have a few conversations. We remembered, we laughed, we prayed. We expected that she would heal, but the brain continued to bleed, and she sunk into a coma again. More CT scans revealed more damage, and she was given weeks to live.
It’s a blessing sometimes when we have a little time, because we can have those final conversations. Scientists and near-death experiencers state that even when a person is in a coma, they can hear and remember what another person has said. Jeffrey Pears is a friend of mine, who is also a hospice bereavement specialist. I asked him if hospice had guidelines for helping people have “end of life” conversations, and he referred me to a book by Dr. Ira Byock entitled “The Four Things That Matter Most.”
The book’s website states, “Four simple phrases: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you” and “I love you” carry enormous power to mend and nurture our relationships and inner lives. These four phrases and the sentiments they convey can help us resolve interpersonal difficulties with integrity and grace.
“We can experience a sense of wholeness even in the wake of family strife, personal tragedy, or divorce, or in the face of death. With practical wisdom and spiritual power, ‘The Four Things That Matter Most’ gives us language and guidance to honor and experience what really matters most in our lives every day,” it states.
When people are ready to leave their bodies, they want to know that they are appreciated (thank you). Let them know what they did that made your life better. Sometimes it’s obvious, such as our parents gave us life. They, or our caregivers, provided for us for at our most vulnerable periods. We may think that the rivalry we had with our siblings was a real bummer, but in interacting with them, we learned more about how the human functions socially.
We all make mistakes. There isn’t a map placed in our hands at birth of how to live the most meaningful life. We learn it by trial and error, and by observing others. We surround ourselves with people we feel comfortable with, once we find out that we have a choice! Sometimes, we associate with people who are selfish, and we learn to be selfish, placing our needs above others. But inside, we know that isn’t right. So, sometimes we deaden the pain with addictions, which lead to more selfishness. When we stop the addiction, wake up, and remember that this is not who we really are, we need to feel that we are forgiven.
It’s tough sometimes to forgive. We create functions for people according to our needs. Parents are supposed to take care of us. Teachers are supposed to be respectful. Friends are supposed to be honest with us, and when these functions we give them aren’t met, we blame them. We read stories of people who blame their whole unhappy lives on something that someone did, or that happened to them. However, now we are reading more and more stories about how people are able to forgive that person or event, and turn it into a pearl of wisdom they couldn’t have had without that saddening experience. The best chemical dependency counselors are former addicts. The best family therapists are those who grew up in dysfunctional families. Burned war soldiers win on “Dancing with the Stars” instead of hiding away and letting their anger eat them up. But it’s hard.
We need to remember that it is in forgiving that we are forgiven. If we want to be forgiven, we have to forgive. That’s even in the Lord’s Prayer, and Jesus tells Peter that he should teach that people should forgive each other “70 times 7 times” (Matthew 18:21-22). At the highest level, forgiving means to overlook. It means to remember that humans are loving spirit in a body, and not the body limited by its senses and the mind’s perceptions and thoughts.
Jesus could have said, “Teach them to remember who their loving Father is, and that as his children they are also loving spirit who came to experiment with this world. When you remember another’s perfection and true innocence it will help you remember your own. Then forgive yourself, ask your Father for forgiveness, and accept being forgiven. If you see them as a perpetrator or a victim, you are allowing the flesh to judge for you.” That is also why Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” (Matt. 7:1) We simply can’t judge. Judging is the opposite of forgiveness. Leave that all to a higher power.
So we forgive our loved one, and accept their forgiveness. (Please forgive me. I forgive you.)
The richest people on Earth are those who are loved by many. They will never starve, be left alone, not have a place to stay, etc. Love is the true measurement of wealth, not stacks of paper or metal discs. Tell your loved one that you love them!
When my mom was dying, I used to start saying, “How do I Love You [Thee], let me Count the Ways,” the first line from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 43rd sonnet. In the beginning, I’d list the loving things she did for me, but that began to feel like I loved her conditionally. I ended up saying that I loved her for how I felt when I was with her, and how I accepted her love. When a person truly loves you, they accept you, and are a great source of strength for you. I believe that both are important to share with the dying. (I love you and you mattered in my life).
All of the above points are great in any relationship at any time. For the dying, Jeffrey said that “goodbye,” or it’s real meaning, “God be with you,” is the fifth conversation. They want our blessings. At some point the choice is to leave this Earth and begin the journey home. Because of their love for us, they want to know that they have our blessings, and that we will be OK if they die. That could be awkward. We don’t want them to think we’re encouraging them to die.
My family told Mom that we supported whatever choice she wanted to make, to go or stay, and that we would love her forever no matter what. If she went we would tell her friends, and celebrate and remember her life. We would miss her, but didn’t want to hold her back. If she stayed, we would continue to be with her, love her, and care for her.
Just sit quietly and you will know what to say. When those important conversations are complete, words become less important. Spend time with your loved one, drop all thoughts, and open your heart so that the love that you both are can connect. Your mind will wander, but bring it back. I like to hold a hand. Words can’t describe what that loving connection is like, but it is a great gift that you give, and receive.
Hale Opio Kauai convened a support group of adults in our Kauai community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Annaleah Atkinson at email@example.com