Where Logic Meets Love

"The Last Thing I Ever Said to Him...": 5 Tips for Avoiding Last-Conversation Fears

Sunday, March 11, 2012

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'The Last Thing I Ever Said to Him...': 5 Tips for Avoiding Last-Conversation Fears | Faith Permeating Life

I have a fear that I'm guessing some of you share.

It was summed up quite nicely in this xkcd comic: "Sometimes, when people leave, I'm seized by a sudden fear that they'll die while they're out, and I'll never forget the last thing I said to them."

It sounds silly, but I don't think it's an unfounded fear. I've heard more than one story in which someone's spouse or child died and what kept them going through their grief was that the last thing they ever said to that person was "I love you."

Or conversely, stories of people forever haunted by the fact that they had a huge fight with someone and never got to reconcile while that person was alive.

I understand the message behind these kinds of stories: Speak lovingly and forgive quickly because you never know if your loved one will be with you tomorrow.

It's like what Jesus emphasized in several of his parables -- always be prepared because God could come for you any moment.

At the same time, I feel that this fear, taken too far, could lead one to avoid conflict and unpleasantness altogether, which is not healthy for a relationship.

I mean, sure, it's possible that I could get angry at Mike about something and he could suddenly have a heart attack while we're arguing and I'd have to live with the guilt for the rest of my life that the last thing I ever said to him was berating him for forgetting to go to the store for the third time in a row. Or whatever. And then I would go around for the rest of my life telling people, "Life is more important than whether there's a carton of milk in the fridge! Forgive and forget because you never know how long you have!"

But the necessary conclusion from that kind of thinking is that I should somehow overlook it every single time Mike makes me angry or breaks a promise or does something to hurt me. (Which he doesn't do often. Just so we're clear.)

Sometimes you will fight with your loved ones. That's just how things go. And it's not always best to try to resolve conflicts immediately. The saying "Never go to bed angry," as Gina so intelligently points out, is terrible advice if you're both exhausted to the point of being irrational, stubborn, and mean. In some relationships, the best possible thing someone can do is storm out of the house and slam the door, and then come back later after they've taken a walk or a drive to cool down.

Conventional wisdom tells us not to leave hurts unresolved because our time on earth is limited, but sometimes we need that extra time or space before we can truly resolve and forgive.

Here are the ways I deal with this dilemma of "Mike or I might die tomorrow but I'm still angry he did _______":
  1. Fight fair. I discussed this at length in my post on healthy arguments. This means no insults, no verbal below-the-belt jabs, no dragging in unrelated issues, no exaggerating with "you always" and "you never." It means sticking to the facts and making it primarily about how his actions make me feel. I never want to say anything that I would have to take back later, just in case later never comes.
  2. Don't stew or let anger build up. I try to bring things up sooner rather than later, particularly if I can tell I'm not going to be able to let go of them easily. If I get too angry about something, I'm more likely to lose control and violate #1.
  3. Pick your battles. This is something I try to balance with #2. If something is merely annoying and it doesn't affect me too strongly, and it's not like it's something Mike does all the time, then I can usually let it go. That way if my worst fears were realized and the last thing I ever said to Mike was negative, I can at least be sure it was over something serious and not over which way he put the toilet paper roll in the bathroom.
  4. Be loving as much and as often as possible. How can I best ensure that the last words I ever say to someone are positive? By being positive and loving as much as I can. In our marriage, this means making loving words and actions part of our daily interactions.
  5. Realize that the journey is more important than the destination. Yes, it can be comforting to know that the last thing you said to your estranged parent was "I love you" or "I forgive you." But the opposite doesn't have to hold true, that a long and joyful relationship is somehow tainted because the last words were said in anger. We place a lot of significance on people's "last words," but they don't determine whether a life was well-lived, and neither does a last conversation define a relationship.

I realize this might be a bit of a strange topic, but it's the kind of thing I think about every so often, and I don't think I'm alone on this.

Do you ever think about these kinds of things? If someone close to you has died, do you place significance on the last conversation you had with them?


  1. I definitely agree that sometimes the best thing to do in a conflict is to take space before coming back to settle it. I know that personally, if I'm in a highly emotional state... I don't communicate clearly at all. I find that if I wait to calm down, and wait until my loved one calms down, things go so much more smoothly.

    1. Definitely. I don't know who came up with the idea that the best thing to do is always to talk things out immediately until you reach a resolution. Sometimes you need some distance to be able to tackle the issue as best you can.

  2. When my dad had a stroke, my little brother (aged 11 at the time) was the only person home. Dad was trying to pack himself a bag while the ambulance was on the way (he was also dizzy and slurring speech), and my brother had to get him to sit still. He just yelled at him, "Dad, sit down and shut up!" so he would stop exerting himself. My brother was so terrified that those were going to be the last words he said to my dad.

    This also reminds me of my rule of telling people that I love them, no matter how awkward it feels. The day after the Columbine shooting (when I was 11), my dad stopped us all as we were leaving for school and said he wanted a hug and a kiss and to say he loved us, because "you never know what might happen" (which sounds a lot more foreboding and doomsday-paranoid than it felt at the time, I assure you). From then on, I never left the house without giving my parents a hug and a kiss and telling them I loved them. When I was younger, our neighbor had passed away at age 100. He had meant a great deal to me, but being so young, I didn't take the opportunity to tell him I loved him when he was really sick. These experiences added up for me, and I when someone means a lot to me, I always tell them. That's why I told Husband that I loved him long before we were even dating, because I just wanted him to know how important his friendship was to me.

    1. I hadn't thought about it this way, but I can imagine there's a different magnitude of regret between "the last thing I ever said wasn't loving" and "I never told this person they were important to me." That's a good reminder that even though we can't necessarily control what our last conversation with someone is, we can make an effort to always let people know they're important to us or that we love them.

  3. I do think about this sometimes. I will always be grateful that something moved me to squeeze my grandmother's foot through the blankets and say, "I love you." (which I may never have said outright to her before) as I left her hospital room for what turned out to be the last time, and that I had a half-hour of fun conversation with my co-worker just before she went home to walk her dog and was hit by an "I'm too important to stop at a crosswalk" driver. I'm also grateful that so far I haven't had anyone die when the last thing I said was awful--but I have lost people with whom I had not been keeping in touch as much as I meant to, and I regret that.

    Just a couple of days ago I sat down with my partner and told him I think it is very important for him to prioritize saying goodbye in the morning and goodnight at bedtime to our 7-year-old son. (I am the parent who walks him to school and usually puts him to bed.) He has been doing it about 70% of the time, but the other 30% it's seemed to me like he didn't even notice he hadn't done it. I grew up feeling that both my parents valued those moments, and on days that had gone badly it was important to me to see that they still loved me enough to give me a goodnight hug. Since my son has been defiant at some point almost every day for years, and this often leads to arguments and hurt feelings, I think regularly scheduled loving moments are crucial, and I wonder if my sticking to them all his life (the details change, but we always have had some sort of parting ritual) may be one of the reasons he describes Daddy and not me as "always yelling"--because objectively I think the actual frequency with which a parent acts angry and frustrated with him is about the same between the two of us!

    I think your 5 tips are excellent.

    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks about these sorts of things. I'd never heard anyone voice a concern like this before (except in the after-the-fact story way I mentioned) until I saw that xkcd comic. Maybe it's because Mike went through a period in his social work studies when he was really fascinated with dying (e.g., end-of-life care, what to have done with your body), or maybe it's from doing so much genealogical research, but I've never shied away from thinking about mortality and the surrounding issues.

      Your request to have your partner say goodbye and good night reminds me of Gretchen Rubin's resolution for her family to give warm greetings and farewells. This is one of the things I hate about Mike's work schedule, that he's always long gone by the time I wake up in the morning. We do try to always kiss and hug when I get home from work, and I've been trying to get us to go to bed at the same time so I at least fall asleep next to him even if I don't get to wake up next to him.

      I think your instinct is right about the importance of having positive, loving interactions to balance out the frustrated and angry moments. In John Gottman's research on marriage and divorce, he found that the number of negative interactions was not as important as the ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions, with healthy relationships falling in the category of 5 to 1. That could explain some of Nicholas' different perceptions of the two of you.

  4. This is such a great post! I thought I was a weirdo because I def think like this. If my hubby and I have an argument, I want it resolved right away. I always feel like something bad could happen and then I'd feel terrible. Thank you so much for sharing this! It's always a great reminder.

    Vonae Deyshawn

    1. You are not a weirdo! It's a good thing, I think, to have that kind of big-picture perspective. I hope you found the tips helpful :)

  5. I have the same fear from time to time too, but I agree with everything that you've written - it all makes very good sense. Great post, as usual :)

    1. The Internet is great for finding out that others have the same thoughts and fears, isn't it? :)


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