Byock says that people at the end of their lives tend to focus almost exclusively on the important people in their lives, especially their families. They want to successfully “complete” their relationships, meaning they want to say what needs to be said and hear what they long to hear. According to Byock, little else matters to most people in the end.
Byock keeps boiling it down. What needs to be said ultimately comes to the “four things” of the title: (1) I am sorry; (2) will you forgive me; (3) I love you; (4) thank you. In most significant relationships, all four are relevant and important.
Probably the biggest surprise to me in all this was his emphasis on the necessity of saying all four in every significant relationship. In a few of his stories, it seemed like the surviving member of the relationship had virtually nothing to apologize for. And yet, Byock, says, apologizing was still healing for the person asking forgiveness.
In other stories, the surviving member of the relationship could say all but the third—I love you. Byock was clear that we can express love in non-verbal ways. But he insists that people should express love somehow, even when they don’t exactly feel it. In one case, an estranged husband was able to re-connect with the love he had felt for his wife many years before. In an even more surprising example, an estranged son was able to connect with the love he had wanted to share with his father but never had. For both the husband and the son, (re)discovering their love was powerfully liberating.
A final point: Byock notes that we don’t have to wait until life is ending to say these four things. They are the basis for any healthy relationship, and we all want healthy relationships with the important people in our lives.
This is not an overtly religious book. But Byock’s emphasis on forgiveness, gratitude, and love, even when they are hard, feels profoundly religious to me. As Christians, we claim that we all need forgiveness; we all have reason for gratitude, and we all have the command to love even our enemies. As Christians, we also recognize that forgiving and being forgiven, thanking, and loving are often remarkably hard to do. But God promises us the grace we need. The rest is up to us.