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 _______":
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?