Last Words: Six Things to Say When Someone is Dying
Todays guest post is written by Chaplain Beryl Schewe
You may have heard the statistic: More people are afraid of public speaking than dying. But how about when we combine the two, speaking about dying to those near death? From my experience, the idea of speaking to those near death conjures dread. We don’t know what to say, and knowing these may be our last words to someone we love weighs heavily.
Poet Dylan Thomas writes, “After the first death, there is no other.”
Too bad. We’d probably be better navigating a second death if we got a crack at it.
Greek mythology’s tour guide for the journey to death was Charon the ferryman. He accompanied people across the River Styx on a one-way trip to the underworld.
Years ago, someone shared with me six simple things to say when someone is dying. I consider this the wisdom of a modern Charon. Simply put, they are: I love you. Thank you. I forgive you. Forgive me. I (We) will be OK. Goodbye.
1. I love you. Three simple words. Three powerful words. My crusty, WWII veteran dad was 88 before he uttered those words to me. For years, I’d say “I love you” as I hung up the phone. My dad would fumble around and say something like “same here” or “I feel the same,” but the actual words eluded him until he was on his deathbed. Then, remarkably, he said, “I love you.”
2. Thank you. I have a thank you card that reads, “When eating the apple, remember who planted the tree.” We don’t always remember to thank, and surely we don’t often thank the ones who brought us the momentous stuff in our lives: our parents’ sacrifice and dedication to make sure we had a chance at a good education; their presence at our band concerts and soccer games; their cheering us on, and seeing the best in us when others saw a different reality. Thank you
3. I forgive you. Face it. We’ve all held on to offenses and grudges way too long. Likely, we even remember slights that were not intentional. We hang on to the hurt even though the pain does not serve us well. We allow the pain to be a barrier in our future relationships. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. It does not mean we are willing to be taken advantage of again. It does mean we are letting go of our option for revenge as we hand our hurts and anger over to God.
4. Forgive me. The church uses the words, “for my sins of omission and commission.” Forgive me for what I have done and what I have failed to do. Sometimes we are more culpable for our inaction than for our actions.
5. I will be OK. I am convinced our loved ones sometimes hang on for us, cling to life because they know we are not yet ready for them to die. Saying the words “I will be OK” gives your loved one permission to go. When young children are in the picture, I suggest people let the dying person know the child will be loved and cared for.
6. Goodbye. Simply letting the dying person know they can go to God when it is their time frees them.
Sometimes last conversations bring healing to a relationship that had become defined by wounds and history. As John Philip Newell writes, “It is about bringing into relationship again the many parts of our lives, including our brokenness, in order to experience transformation. It is not about forgetting the wound or pretending that it did not happen. It is about seeking a new beginning that grows inseparably from the suffering.”
Birthing and dying are oddly similar bedfellows in the circle of life. We had no ideas on how to be born, but we allowed others around us to coax us into the world. The same can be said of dying. In death, I’ve noticed that the most peaceful person in the room is often the one dying. As Carl Jung reminds us, “Wholeness is about integration … but not perfection.” What we say doesn’t need to be perfect. Just say it with love.
Beryl Schewe is a board certified Chaplain who lives and works in Minneapolis. Her new book, Habits of Resilience: Learning to Live Fully in the Midst of Loss is available on Amazon. You can follow her on twitter @BerylSchewe
This post was originally published in the Eden Prairie News.