Four things that matter most

Sister Barbara Ann Mayer | July 6, 2017

In a book entitled “The Four Things that Matter Most” by Dr. Ira Byock, I read about the most important things that everyone needs to know.

We need to say to family members who are dying: “Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.” Byock, a physician who has cared for seriously ill people for over 40 years, shares stories of people near the end of their lives who are able to mend their relationships with significant others and die peacefully.

These four statements embody what matters most in life. All parents and children have done things they regret and need to ask forgiveness and to forgive. Everyone has things to thank others for, but sometimes we take them for granted and don’t express it. And all of us need to tell family members we love them for their sake as well as ours.

The stories emphasized how hard it is to forgive parents who have abandoned or mistreated their children, but if they don’t, the children carry that burden all their lives. Adult children must also thank their parents at least for giving them life. Moreover, they need to express their love for parents who tried their best, but because of their own baggage were not able to love adequately. These are heartrending stories, but they show how freeing the words are for both the parent and the child.

One of the most poignant stories was one about a young child dying. The parents were so devastated that they found it hard to talk about. Children have lots of questions about death and parents need to be honest. This 12-year-old girl dying of cancer wanted to know what being dead was like and if there was life after death. It’s a situation no parent wants to face but expressing the four things that matter eases the pain. When the girl and her parents “stopped denying her mortality,” their remaining time together became a celebration.

Another touching story was about very religious parents caring for their son with AIDS. They could not accept his lifestyle, but they still loved him and were able to accompany him in his last days at home. The son asked their forgiveness for the pain he had caused and thanked them for not rejecting him.

Still another told of a mother who died leaving a six-year-old daughter. She had her husband and friends help her leave notes and presents for each of her daughter’s birthdays until she reached 20. It was her way of making sure her daughter knew how much she was loved even when her mother could no longer be there.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be words. In one story the father who was dying had never been affectionate toward his children. When his son came to see him during his last days, he asked his son to shave him. As the son did the ritual, the father relaxed and they reciprocated love in the process of lather, massage, and warm towel. The son’s loving care was healing for both parties.

When we carry unforgiveness and hatred in our hearts, we harm ourselves more than those it is directed toward. It ruins our ability to live full joyful lives. It is like carrying around a weight that drags us down and makes us bitter and resentful. The most important message of the book is: Don’t wait until you’re dying or the significant other is dying to say these things. Do it now.