Most people who have lost someone close to them replay their last moments together over and over in their minds. Sometimes it’s in a favorable way, thankful for the chance to say all they needed to say to each other. The “now or never” aspect casts a new, urgent light on what matters most. Priorities become clear.

Other times, we think of everything we did wrong, they did wrong, or what we wish we could change. When death is unexpected, comments considered mundane at the time can turn out to be their much-repeated “last words.” Those of us left behind can easily read too much into them, and imbue them with importance far beyond the truth. This kind of thinking can torture us.

When my mother’s brother was 18, he joined the Army.  Soon after getting home, his friends came to take him out for the evening. My mother was his baby sister, and he often teased her to the point of tears, as was the case that night.  As he left, she yelled after him, “I hope you die!”  He was in a car accident that night, and died of a head injury.  Her last words to him haunted her the rest of her life.

We have so much we want to say to those we love before they die, and surely those who are dying want the same opportunity.

If I were able to choose, I would like to die like my father-in-law. He had time to wind down, plan and prepare, and then ultimately call everyone to his bedside to say what he wanted to say. Hospice assisted his wife and children as they kept him at home, until he went Home. He was fully present, and spoke to his family (often asking to speak with one grandchild at a time), neighbors and co-workers with both grace and humor.

He got to say his goodbyes, and we got to say ours.  It was beautiful. He asked for a taste of ice cream, a favorite hymn to be sung, and for one last shave before slipping away late one night.

The problem with this, of course, is we don’t always get to choose. The obvious solution is to live each day as if it was our last. Can you imagine, though? What if everyone you saw hugged you goodbye as if they would die that night? What if every phone conversation took an hour because of all the “one last things” that needed to be said? It’s not possible to live that way.

I suppose acceptance is the only answer. What’s the alternative, anyway? If we are to live fully, we have to let go. Let go of regrets, what ifs, fears, and yes, even those endless replays of our loved ones’ last moments. It’s easy (and understandable) to see our lives through the filter of how it would be had they not died, but it robs us of the joy we could be experiencing.

If you’ve lost someone, this is your new normal. It’s permanently different, and it’s not fair, but it’s your life. How you live it is up to you. There’s a freedom in feeling grateful for the person you loved, but being able to move forward anyway.  This is possible in time.  These are a few things to keep in mind as you get there:

*Moving forward doesn’t mean forgetting your loved ones.  You’ll always carry them with you.  You can have happiness without guilt!

*Value your relationships and tell those you love how you feel.

*Resolve misunderstandings.  There’s no guarantee we’ll have the luxury of letting rifts heal in their own time.

I’ll leave you with the last words of Karl Marx to his housekeeper who sat by his deathbed, waiting to write them down for posterity:  “Go on, get out! Last words are for fools who haven’t said enough.”

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Alicia King

Alicia King is the author of "Healing: The Essential Guide to Helping Others Overcome Grief and Loss". Ms. King writes from the unique perspective of one who has lost many of those close to her. Her mother's death was suspicious enough to launch a homicide investigation and lengthy legal rollercoaster. This ultimately led to a sentence of more than 15 years for her mother's boyfriend. During the next eight years, she would lose her grandmother, stepfather, stepmother, and father, as well as miscarrying in her second trimester while awaiting her mother's boyfriend's trial. Ms. King currently lives in Tennessee with her husband Dan and their two children. She's a world-class worrier, earning her the nickname The Queen of Concern. She is also an award-winning songwriter, writing mostly for film and TV.

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