Sunday, March 25, 2018

Leave No Words Unspoken

The cover story for this month's United Church Observer magazine (for which I write occasionally) is entitled "Last Words". When the call to submit to this feature came out last fall, I decided not to pitch anything; my last words with my father, who died in May 2009, weren't particularly profound -- "I love you, Dad" and "Thank you" -- and I'd said what I'd wanted to say. I had no regrets about something I didn't say.

So I was struck by what one of the contributors wrote about how, even when we know we are going to lose someone, we refuse to say what we really want to say. We don't want to get upset, we don't want to be upsetting, but how is that worse than the regret of not speaking those thoughts to the person we are about to learn to live without? Human beings are creatures of emotion, of tears, of touch yet we deny ourselves these connections because of strange social conventions, and fear.

Our feelings about, and resistance to, death and grief are creating such problems for us. Not one of us is getting out of this world alive -- WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE -- yet we act as if we can defy death as long as we don't talk about it, as long as we don't acknowledge it. Heaven forbid we actually plan for it.
And so all those things we want to say, those things perhaps we should say, when someone is alive to hear and appreciate them, go unspoken, and that unspokenness haunts us for the rest of our own days.

Why not speak the truth? It's an act of compassion and mercy -- maybe even comfort -- for both you and the person who is dying.
"You were never around for me and that hurts but I love you and your death will leave a hole in my life." OR "You were so good, so caring and loving. I am grateful you were in my life for 20/40/60 years. I will treasure my memories and our stories of you. Thank you."
Surely, whether we are honoured or obliged to be at someone's bedside when they die, it doesn't hurt to find some kind words to speak out loud.

What about simply saying "I love you" and "Thank you" over and over again? That's what life boils down to, isn't it? Love and gratitude. Who cares if we cry? The letting go of those words, the knowledge you aren't holding onto them, is such a weight lifted; as are the tears shed at the time.
"I love you" and "Thank you" are those basic phrases that everyone, especially those whose minds have been affected by dementia, recognize and understand and respond to. What better gift to give someone who is dying than the knowledge they were loved and appreciated. Don't leave it for the funeral.

Reading these stories reminded me of the one time I tried to tell a dying woman how much she meant to me. I'd known her best when I was a child -- her husband and my father were very good friends -- and I wanted her to know how much I cherished their friendship with my parents, my memories of our dinners at their house, and later, her presence in my life when I returned home as an adult.
Her son wouldn't let me in the house. She came and stood behind him at the door but how could I stand on the doorstep with a bag of cookies in my hand and speak past him, say those words I wanted to say -- and get emotional, of course -- with him standing between us?

I handed over the cookies, as if they were the sole purpose of my visit, and walked home, my unspoken words trailing along behind me like deflated balloons.

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