by Dr. Ira Byock
“For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
John Greenleaf Whittier
First the bad news: You’re going to die!
My considered advice is this: Get over it. As a doctor, I am passionate about preventing injuries and illness and helping to beat the odds whenever possible. But death happens. Instead of just running from death, how about learning from it?
Mortality will teach us a lot about life – If we let it…
Ask a man who is being prepped for heart transplant surgery, or a woman facing chemotherapy for the third time, “What are you thinking about most today?” and the answer you receive will always involve the people the patient loves. Always.
A drive to connect with others lies at the heart of what it means to be human. The specter of death reveals our relationships to be our most precious possessions.
Of course, relationships are never perfect. Intellectually, we all know that even the most loving relationships occasionally have rough spots. When hurtful feelings occur in close relationships, it’s easy to put off the work required to clear the air and make things right. We assume that they’ll be another chance…later.
While understandable, as a strategy for full and healthy living, the “mañana” approach is a double mistake. First, carrying anger and resent toward the people we love – or once loved – erodes our own happiness in the present. It’s like lugging emotional baggage around when you want to feel light. What a drag.
Secondly, it’s a mistake because, let’s face it, stuff happens. We tend to assume that the people we love know that we love them, even if we’ve had our disagreements and tense moments. Yet, when someone we care about is suddenly injured, falls seriously ill – or dies – it’s common to have nagging doubts. Car accidents, heart attacks, strokes and maladies too numerous to list can rob us of opportunities to say the things that we intended to someday say – and will now will be left unsaid.
In my years of practicing emergency medicine, I learned that a brush with death or receiving a bad diagnosis often instills newfound appreciation for the gifts of life and relationships. And in my practice of hospice and palliative medicine, I have found that four simple declarative statements and the sentiments they convey can mend and nurture relationships with children, parents, relatives, and close friends:
Please forgive me.
I forgive you.
I love you.
So why wait? It is never too soon to express forgiveness, gratitude and love to the people who have been intimate and integral in our lives.
Ira Byock, MD, is a palliative care physician and chief medical officer of the Providence Institute for Human Caring in Torrance, Calif. His books include Dying Well, The Four Things That Matter Most, and The Best Care Possible.