In early spring, I ventured with all four kids in tow to a friend’s house, one who lives on a small but scenic lake about an hour’s drive away. It was spring break, and the kids were itching for fresh air and outdoor play with their old pals. I hadn’t thought of the possibility that the subject of death might emerge, but then again, those who know me understand that this is a topic on the fore of my mind and about which I have written quite a bit.
Much to my delight, a few mutual friends and their kids were able to gather with us, and after catching up with “How’s the family?” we delved into deeper subjects — like death. One of my friends had lost her father less than a year prior to this conversation, and she teared up as I asked how she and the family were coping. His death was especially tumultuous to her, because they’d had a rocky relationship for decades and never reconciled in the way she’d hoped.
Still, she shared with me something that struck me as simple but beautiful. “I spoke with our pastor,” she offered through tears, “and he said all I needed to do was tell my dad four things before he died.”
“What were they?” I asked, intrigued.
Her answer is what I share with you below.
1.“I love you.”
It seems that when someone we love languishes near death, these three words are sometimes most difficult to utter. Many people have shared with me the pain swarming in their hearts as they acknowledge the reality that all the heavy words left unsaid for so many years seem petty in light of the suffering their loved one endures.
Having a daughter with a rare disease, in which people from all over the world who share her genetic mutation die without known causes each year, has brought me and my family on the precipice of death for nearly seven years. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve gleaned from living with the fragility of human life is this: you can never say “I love you” enough.
2. “I know you love me.”
Sometimes it’s a struggle to tell someone you know they love you when, in fact, you aren’t sure. Virtually every family has cracks, rifts, and unresolved misunderstandings. Is it possible that, when one of them is passing from earth to the afterlife, we can say “I know you love me” with sincerity?
I call to mind a few of my own family members before answering this question, and my thought is that saying “I know you love me” is meant to heal the dying person, to assuage any undue guilt that cannot be recompensed to you or to me. When my grandpa lay dying, I recall holding his hand and saying calmly, clearly, “Grandpa, it’s Jeannie here with you. You are not alone. I’m staying with you.” He squeezed my hand in recognition and relief, I assume, for his greatest fear was to die alone.
If we can offer the words “I know you love me,” even if we aren’t sure, we are speaking words of mercy to a person who is surely tormented by all the what ifs and if onlys they cannot reverse.
3. “I forgive you.”
Regardless of the relationship you share with the one dying, there are holes of hurt that need to be patched in your heart and theirs. Forgiveness is a gift we bring to the dying, even if we aren’t entirely ready for it yet. Each loss is different, too. Sometimes we have ample opportunity to spend with a loved one, but sometimes the loss is sudden and shocking, as in the case of suicide or a car accident or drug overdose.
Because we, as Christians, believe in the eternity of the soul, we can still speak to those who have already died and communicate our assurance that, regardless of what happened in life, it is bygone. Nothing is so heinous that it is irreparable, even after death.
4. “Please forgive me.”
I’ve discovered that the greatest and most powerful gift we can offer both ourselves and someone who is dying is the virtue of humility. It takes an immense dose of the shattering of pride to tell someone who has hurt us, possibly over a lifetime, “Please forgive me.” When I consider the possibility of saying this to the one person who has wounded me with horrific verbal abuse, it stings my ego beyond explanation.
This person is a family member who has seldom, if ever, apologized for his venomous rants and emotional volatility through the years. Were I to say, at the hour of his death (or ideally, before), “Please forgive me,” what would it be for? Many of you reading this can likely relate to a similar scenario: physical abuse from a (former) spouse; sexual abuse from a parent or grandparent; or any form of victimization that has left you in the wake of violence and terror.
What does it mean to ask someone for forgiveness when we have been the ones beaten and battered by words and wounds? It is an extension of the proverbial olive branch. It does not mean we take responsibility for what they have done to hurt us; it means we accept the reality of our own brokenness and how we have inadvertently wounded others. It can be a universal declaration to ask forgiveness, especially from one we do not believe warrants it.
In death, we grant mercy by way of charity. These four statements empower you, not the one dying. To the one dying, they are glimpses of hope and balm for the soul.