When my dad had died eight years earlier, [my friend] Michael had stood by me. When the sympathy cards stopped coming and I began the terrifying freefall into grief, Michael had been my parachute. Now I stood vigil with him at his father’s deathbed.
I tried to look into [his father] Al’s eyes, which had always been playful. Under his silver eyebrows were dark circles; his lids were slightly open, but the eyes were rolled back and showed only white. Clear plastic tubing snaked from the wall to a mask covering his nose and mouth. The nurses said he might make it through the night, but they weren’t sure. His kidneys were shutting down.
Out in the shiny hospital hallway, laundry carts stood silent. It was deep past midnight, and we were alone: a son, a wife, a dying dad, a friend.
Hearing is the last sense to fade, so Michael and his wife, Stephanie, spoke to Al —beautiful, tender words. “I love you, Dad”, Michael said. “I’m here with you, and you won’t be abandoned. You won’t be left alone.”
“Thank you for all you’ve given us”, Stephanie added, holding his hand, which occasionally twitched. Al had always been generous, helping with school expenses or other needs. “Whenever you helped us and we said thank you, you just told us, ‘That’s what dads are for’ ”, Michael said. He paused and repeated, “That’s what dads are for”.
Death changes conversation. It strips away cheap social conventions and calls us either to be silent or to speak from the heart. In that room, the only words that seemed appropriate were the kind that were deep and clear and true.
Death also changes the calculation. Whatever seemed so important during life —job or money or house or success— doesn’t matter now. When you’re in extremis, the most important thing, apart from being ready to meet God, is to be surrounded by people who love you.1
This is a powerful story reminding us how the death of a loved one can bring people close again. Where once a relationship was strained by anger and broken conversations, death changes our estimation of what strained and broke the relationship in the first place.
But what can we do to prevent the strain caused by anger? What can we do to prevent the break in conversations that leave our relationships with family and our friendships with others in tatters?
Some Advice for Better ConversationsThe writer of The Letter of James offers some advice:
My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. (James 1:19–20)
What most often causes the strain between two people? When we don’t listen to each other … I mean really listen. Spend more time listening than talking. It is only in listening that you will learn what you should, in fact, say.
What most often causes the breakdown of a friendship? Anger. Someone might say something that rouses anger in us —heaven knows I am certainly prone to such a reaction— but remember self-control is not a bad word! Keep listening so that you may better understand what he meant what he said what angered you. By keeping anger in check, you may soon remember just why your friendship was so important to you in the first place. Anger between two people, whether family members, friends, neighbours or even co-workers, too easily destroys relationships.
There is a place for anger, to be sure, just as there is a place for forgiveness. Maria Popova, at BrainPickings, offers some relevant reflections on these topics in her article, “Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Anger, Forgiveness, and What Maturity Really Means“.