There are several things in life that we are guaranteed. As a child I remember being told that I could always count on Death and Taxes. We have specialists, firms, and the largest governmental agency on earth to manage the latter. However, death, a guarantee that we all must go through, is left without much discourse or reflection.
I come to this realization, not because of my own work in hospice or even through my work as a clinical psychologist where I have spent literally hundreds of hours helping others in this journey. I have training and I have plenty of experience, but when it comes to the death of my own family I have never had a choice of reflection. I have lost my grandparents, my mother, my stepfather, and several aunts and uncles, however none of these provided me with the option of goodbye.
I started to think about how we often fear death, or the unknown, and given the “choice” is literally against the fiber of our being. Option, begets the difficult questions of how, what, when, where and of course why. Medicine provides the ability to extend, support, or sustain people beyond their natural limits, thus giving the illusion of choice. I say illusion, because at some point medicine will say our limits have been met. The choice comes when you are given the gift of closing your life on your terms and having the choice to say goodbye.
I think back on the loss of my mother, where my last goodbye was simply an ordinary day, through the rush of life, with a short I love you and a promise to talk the next day as I was unloading the kids from the car. Tomorrow never came, and being able to say those things I would have wanted, never to be spoken.
Saying goodbye, is more than a gift. Saying goodbye is an opportunity to say the things you wish you could say, should have said, or were afraid to speak. It allows us to have some control. It allows us to honestly share our fears and to have someone who can empathize, reassure and encourage. The gift is having some understanding that those that surround you can celebrate the good times, recall the heartaches, and help us reconcile the challenges that surround letting go.
The wisdom of someone I am fortunate enough to call a respected friend, who is also a physician and blessed spirit, reminded me recently that there are simply four things that we need to say as we go through this journey to be complete:Please forgive me, I forgive you, I am sorry, and I love you. Such a simple concept, for such a complex process.
Forgive me, for all that I may have done. I forgive you, for those times you hurt me, either knowingly or not. Saying I am sorry, is so simple but so powerful when you are trying to clear a conscience. And finally, I love you allows us to communicate that despite our position, no matter how or why we are there, that even if we want to stay, this is a reality that we have to accept.
Today, with a somber heart, I am facing the challenge of helping my brother through the challenge of saying goodbye. Although I feel it is a gift, it definitely doesn’t come with a red ribbon or balloons. The downside of this kind of gift is the reality of the goodbye. Explaining this to my young children I used the analogy of feeling sad when we say goodbye to our cousins after a good visit: Tears flow, hearts ache, but optimistically we remind them that there will be another day. In this instance there is not another day to look forward to and there will be no future moments. This moment, for anyone facing it, is more about being strong enough to bravely say goodbye. It is a gift to say goodbye because it is a gift to help someone face the unknown and allow them to go without continued struggle.
I humbly go forward with courage to do him this honor with a heavy heart but with an optimistic spirit that when he does make this journey, it will be after a celebration with those he loves, unburdened from any past regrets, emotionally prepared to let go and spiritually excited about what may be to come.