My stepfather, Bill, died last month.
During Christmas, I took my daughter and youngest son to see him so we could say good-bye. This experience was notably different from the first time I said goodbye to someone who was dying. When I whispered those words to my husband, he was unconscious. I found out later that our doctor was notorious for NOT having the he’s-going-to-die conversations so, by the time he had it with us, Art was unconscious and it was very clear that he was going to die within a few days. He wasn’t awake when the kids said goodbye to him. He didn’t get to say all the things you would hope a father would say to his children in the last days of his life.
With Bill, we had the special opportunity to have a lucid final conversation with him. Saying goodbye to a loved one who is dying can be a very meaningful experience for everyone involved. It can also seem daunting. How do you do it? How do you find the courage to face the fact that this will be the last time that you see your loved one in their current form? How do you save yourself the regret of chickening out?
Before I offer my advice, I acknowledge that saying goodbye to a dying person is scary. It is uncomfortable as hell! The hard part is not actually saying your goodbyes, it is getting over the fear and discomfort associated with it. This is what I told my kids before we saw Bill. I told them that courage means telling your fear to ‘F’ off and doing what you know you should do. And I told them to…
1. Get Over Yourself
Seriously. When you think about saying goodbye the voice in your head probably says things like:
“I don’t know what say.”
“I’m really uncomfortable.”
“I can’t handle this.”
“I don’t want to do this.”
“What if I say the wrong thing?”
The problem with all of these thoughts is that you’re the center of them. Saying goodbye isn’t all about you. It has a bit to do with the person who is dying as well! Remember, to keep their experience in mind when preparing to say goodbye.
Constant “I” thinking will drive you to seek comfort from the dying person when it should be the other way around. So … get over yourself.
2. Show Gratitude
The fondest memory I have of my step-dad was when he and I were sitting on the beach watching my kids, my late husband and my mom in the water. My mom came out of the waves and was walking back towards us when my step-dad said with so much love and longing, “Look at your mom. Isn’t she just the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen!!” In that moment, I knew my mom had made a great choice for a second husband. I loved him for how much he loved her and how easily he expressed it. His adoration of her made their eight years together the happiest of her life. I thanked Bill for that memory and how grateful I was for his love for her.
Share your fond memories with the person who is dying. Thank them for the lessons they taught you. When it comes down to it, the positive impacts that we have on the people we love are our most significant accomplishments. Leaving someone knowing that they represent something good in your life can be such a special gift!
I’d like to tell you that I was a model stepdaughter. I was! (minus many, many immature moments). For a good year after my mom married Bill, I behaved like a jealous, immature child. Suddenly there was this guy getting all of my mother’s attention (so I felt), and I thought there was less for me. I am ashamed when I recall my jealousy and the fact that I was in my 40s at the time. This shame sat with me until I owned it and asked Bill to forgive me for my ugly behavior. And ya know what…he did. Even if he hadn’t, I would still have felt better for coming clean.
We all have less than graceful moments in our memories. We don’t act like good people all of the time, but acknowledging when we have done wrong shows that we care and that we want to make things right. Asking for forgiveness frees us from the painful guilt of the past (and the future) that we feel over our shortcomings and allow us to access the amazing, compassionate beings that we truly are. The experience intensifies your love for the person who is dying as well. This is a good thing because love doesn’t die; it flows from you to others. So, let the flowing begin. Make amends.
4. Let Them Know You’ll Be Ok
Before my husband died, I told him that it was ok to “go.” I saw how much pain he was in and how hard he was struggling. I just wanted to let him know that he didn’t have to fight so hard if he didn’t want to. I wanted him to believe that the kids and I would be ok. Three weeks later he died.
What many people don’t realize about the person who’s dying is that they worry about you! They may hang on suffering long after they’re ready to go because they’re afraid to leave you. Letting that person know that you’ll be all right can help to put their mind at ease and allow them to feel peace in their final days. So, let them know that it will be okay, because eventually, it will be. Let them know that you will take care of their loved ones when they’re gone. The person dying needs that comfort. It’s an incredible gift to give.
Saying good-bye takes an open heart. It requires a willingness to connect with yourself, your mortality, and our life cycle. It’s what being human is all about.
Three weeks after our visit, Bill died. I felt a sense of peace. Not only had I gotten to share this experience with Bill, but my kids had taken the opportunity and did with it what most kids do when adults get out of their way … they handled it with beautiful, raw, and honest grace. When I told the kids that Bill had died there was silence and in that silence, I felt a sense of their peace as well.