Caring Currents

What Every Caregiver Knows: Love Is a Verb

Last updated: Nov 12, 2009

Even though my father just died, I'm not going to repeat the relationship-building advice that caregivers hear so often: to tell your sick or aging mother, father, husband, wife, grandparent, other relative, or friend, now, while you can, and at every opportunity --- hurry, hurry, hurry! --- how much you love them.

Because if you're a caregiver, they know. Say the words because you can't help saying them, not because you feel you're supposed to.

Full disclosure: This is coming from someone infamous in her family for loathing to say, "I love you." I'm not averse to the sentiment "“- far from it! "“- only to the thinning of its meaning when the words are tossed off too casually, too robotically, too often, as has become the modern norm. (Pet peeve: The perfunctory "Byebyeloveyou!" at the end of every phone call.)

When I hear, or say, "I love you," I want the words to be fully intentional. For me, there's nothing casual about them. (Okay, contributing factor: I'm one of those reserved people who's missing the emotion-burbling gene!)

I'm a bigger believer in telling by showing. It's the old "actions speak louder than words." If you love someone, you're there for him or her. You do things without questioning or rationalizing. You perform acts of love because you want to, not out of obligation. You don't expect thanks. You don't even expect notice (although it's wonderful not to be taken for granted; love is always nicest when it's reciprocal).

You do what must be done, in ways large and small. You cancel prior lunch plans to take coughing Mom for last-minute x-rays, as my high school best friend did this week when I was in town for my dad's funeral. (We squeezed in breakfast.) You take Dad into your home, as my brother and sister-in-law did for the last two years of his life. (Angels among us.) You do all that caregiver stuff "“ you don't need me to detail it. You're living it.

Don't let anyone make you feel like a repressed throwback to another era, or a curmudgeon who risks "missing out" on anything, if you don't speak up with the sweet nothings. You're already expressing "I love yous" aplenty.

I did say those three not-so-little words to my Dad last week. My brother held the phone up to his ear, and they popped right out. Dad said them back, in a voice as firm as it was faint...his last words to me. By morning, he'd lost consciousness to heavy morphine, as I'd been forewarned he would. Two days later, he died.

Do I regret not having this wonderful exchange more often? Not at all. That wouldn't make have made those final words more meaningful.

I had a similar experience telling my mom that I loved her on the day she signed herself into hospice two years ago. Ironically, she died before a Woman's Day magazine [column] ( I'd written on this subject was published, though I'd told her about it. As with Dad, the relative rarity of my words underscored them.

Some people say they hand out "love yous" in abundance because you never know when one might be the last. I respect that. But I doubt I'd recall an autopilot "love youbye" with the same intensity as, say, that last exchange with my Dad or the one on that hard hospital day with my Mom (which I realize I was lucky, in each case, to have).

I do tell my remaining loved ones how I feel, though not every minute of the day or even every day. And I don't care whether they parrot the words back to me, or not. What's critical is that, whether by words or deeds, each side leaves the other in no doubt about where we stand.