Had he lived, my dad would have been 117 years old today. He died on June 22, 1997 at age 94. I considered writing something about his life, but realized that would be too personal for a blog. Instead, after attending a memorial service for him via Zoom, I chose a related topic. Before saying more, I want to state that the recent Father’s Day is mostly unrelated to this message, but it does lead into what I have in mind.
I want to share some thoughts about how we behave with the sick and dying. Obviously these thoughts were prompted by the anniversary of my father’s death, but they apply equally to any relative, friend or colleague. When anyone we love, respect, or owe gratitude toward dies, we too often think about what we wish we had said when they were alert and well. I’m not talking about the perfunctory sentiments expressed on birthdays, fathers’ days, retirements, or other such occasions.
It’s easy to agree on this point about timing our expressions of love and appreciation. There may be other questions about when is best, but there are other perhaps more important questions related to why we need to say these things and for whom we do so. If there are aspects of your relation with someone that require a degree of reconciliation, then it should also be done before the person dies or becomes insensate. Clearly, religious beliefs are part of the answers for many, and of course, these questions have no right or wrong answers.
To reiterate the when: I am convinced that you should never delay sharing your thoughts or feelings with those who matter to you; don’t put it off. There will never be a perfect moment. Because these conversations may be difficult for us, we tend to justify a delay by telling ourselves that saying anything that could hint at impending death should be avoided lest it upset the person. This is a foolish notion: I suspect most of those who are near death realize that the end is near and some may even welcome it. It does no good to pretend all is well. This pretence does not excuse us from withholding our feelings. Ideally gratitude and positive thoughts should be repeated often. What harm can there be in saying to a parent, spouse, child, or other, “You are a good person; I admire you; I love who you are. I am grateful to you and I want to thank you for being my parent, spouse, child or other”?
The why is complicated because it is so closely linked to the question: for whom do we say these things? For the dying or for ourselves? We may do so to avoid spending the future with regrets, or simply in an effort to bring comfort to the dying. Or maybe it doesn’t matter and the most sensible answer is ‘both’. No matter what your beliefs about the hereafter, those who live on carry a bundle of memories with them. These include acts of omission, possibly even of commission, that we regret. We should acknowledge these acts with those we love or to whom we owe thanks. The timing is never ‘right’ but it is often ‘wrong’: if we wait too long and put off saying what we feel, we may miss our chance entirely.
I’m sorry if this comes across as a message on a Hallmark card. It is not just a product of old age; I tried to express much the same idea years ago. In 2001 I wrote an editorial with the title “Mentoring and Momenti: On Timely Thanks.” It followed the death of a cherished mentor, Jack Tizard. I wrote about how deeply I regretted not thanking him properly for all he had done for me. Sadly, the same feelings were true for many others, including, of course, family.
Posthumous eulogies are largely worthless. I resolve to say thanks whenever and wherever I think about it. Consider doing likewise.
PS… This message applies equally to the young, fit and well, especially family. Tell them often and clearly not just that you love them, but why you do.