Don't Wait to Say I Love You

How to avoid living with regret.

Posted Jan 05, 2021

'Photo taken by Zoe Weil'
Source: 'Photo taken by Zoe Weil'

When I was 23, my beloved father died of cancer. He had battled the disease for five years. My friends knew of my dad’s cancer, but I turned to very few of them for support. That’s largely because his cancer, coupled with my fear and sorrow, seemed to make many people uncomfortable. We were all young, too young to know how best to cope.

My friend, Tom, however, kept offering me wise and helpful counsel. He was never afraid to confront the reality of my dad’s prognosis, even when I was. Nor did he shy away from saying hard things that needed saying. When I was accepted to several law schools and wanted to go to UCLA, he gently, but firmly said, “You can’t go there.” He told me that California was too far from my father, who lived in New York. That was a year before my dad died.

Tom knew what I would not let myself consider: my father’s cancer was catching up with him, chemo wasn’t working, and there were only so many months that surgeries to remove the spreading and growing tumors would prolong his life. Tom understood that I would want to be with my dad during his final months. He was right of course.

When my father was in the process of dying, Tom also didn’t shy away from my tears. He was fully there for me and offered me a nugget of wisdom that has been so influential and important in my life ever since. He said that I was going through something my friends had yet to experience – the awful loss of a parent to a gruesome disease – and that because of this loss I would be able to be there for others when it was their turn to experience grief. I took these words to heart. I have been committed to living by them for more than 35 years.

Two decades ago, a friend’s son committed suicide. His body was found by his sister who was in her early twenties. As I tried to support the family, I passed along Tom’s words to this distraught, grieving young woman. I told her that while there was nothing good about what had happened, she would be able to be there for others in a profound way because of her terrible loss.

Two years ago, I saw her again, and she said she had something she wanted to tell me. She let me know that those words I had shared so long ago had carried her forward and meant so much to her. It turns out they were as important to her life as they were to mine. I told her that those words didn’t originate with me; they came from my friend Tom, who somehow, in his mid-twenties, held uncommon wisdom.

On Christmas Eve, Tom’s wife let me know that he had an aggressive cancer, which had been discovered only a few months earlier. He was in the hospital on a ventilator. I’d been thinking about Tom for months and kept planning to call but put it off, believing, as we tend to, that we have all the time in the world. The last time we’d been in touch was texting during the COVID spring.

Tom died on New Year’s Eve at age 62. I didn’t get to tell him how profoundly he’d influenced me, nor how I’d passed along his words to others, and they’d made a big difference. I didn’t get to thank him for the many other wise things he said to me; the important truths he regularly imparted that shaped my life; nor to say how his friendship and constancy carried me through some of the darkest periods in my life. I didn’t get to tell him I loved him.

A new year has begun. Perhaps we’ve made resolutions. But resolutions are about what we resolve to do going forward rather than what we might do right now. I hope that this post will inspire you to contact someone who’s been important in your life so that you can tell them what they mean to you, and that you’ll do this now.

I also hope that you will take Tom’s advice to heart. If you have suffered loss and sorrow, you have insight and experience that will enable you to help others and turn your sadness into acts and words that will console and create meaning for people going through their own painful losses.

As this past year has taught us so brutally, life can be snatched away quickly. I am filled with regret that I didn’t get to tell Tom all that he meant to me and to share some of the legacy he is leaving behind that he may not have known. If you want to avoid such regrets yourself, don’t delay reaching out to those people who’ve made a difference in your life. Don’t wait to say I love you.