In fifth grade I had a good friend whose father was an ER doctor. She would regale us with gruesome stories from the hospital. I still keep all arms and legs inside the car after the one she told us about a man who stuck his arm out and it was cut off by a passing tree (shudder). One day, she was dropped off at my house for a play date and she said, “I love you” to her departing parent. As the door closed she turned to me and simply stated, “I always say ‘I love you’ when I say goodbye to my parents because you never know when something will happen to them.” A particularly morbid thought for a ten-year-old, but not hugely surprising considering the stories she had heard.
I have probably received tens of thousands of pieces of advice over the years, but that may be the one that has stuck with me the most concretely. For thirty years I have said “I love you” to my parents and sisters and then husband and kids every time I say goodbye to them. I say it on the phone, when I am running out the door, and when I kiss them goodnight.
This begs the question, does saying “I love you” so often dilute the meaning? I truly believe that a person can’t tell someone that they love them too much or hear it too much. In fact, I think saying and hearing, “I love you” is very grounding. Even if I am angry or grumpy, I say “I love you” if I have to leave or get off of the phone. And do you know what? It is hard to stay quite as mad when reminded of that love. It does not mean that all is forgiven or forgotten, but I can feel myself calming down and am reminded that no matter what just happened, I do love that person. Of course, your loved one knows that you love them whether or not you say it and not everyone is comfortable expressing their love all of the time, but I offer the challenge to try it in a way that is meaningful. See how it feels to spend an extra ten seconds with every goodbye telling your loved ones that you do in fact love them. See how it makes you feel — how it changes your mood or slows down your day or gives you a moment of reflection.
The place where this advice gets tricky is with friends and extended family who I also love very much, but social norms make it a little more awkward to end every girls’ night or school pickup with rounds of “I love you.” That being said, I do still say it when I’m feeling moved to express how much I care or when someone needs some extra TLC or just when I haven’t seen someone in a while/won’t see them for a long time. I also say it without saying it. I try to tell friends and family how grateful I am to have them in my life.
In May 2012, my Mom died very suddenly. She was young and healthy and it was nothing but tragic. I was thirty-three weeks pregnant with my second child and truly devastated. I second guessed everything. What if I had been there, could I have saved her? What if someone had noticed sooner that she hadn’t shown up for work? What if they had called me earlier, could I have gotten there in time to make a difference? I will never know the answer to any of those questions. In fact, we will never even know exactly what happened. There is one thing I do know. I know without a shadow of a doubt that my very last words to her were “I love you.” And I will be forever grateful to that fifth grade friend, who I have not seen since we were ten, for the best advice I have ever received.