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What I Learned This Week: The Last Word on Saying Goodbye

10/07/2013 12:15 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

I recently saw an old friend for what we both knew would probably be the last time.

An elderly gentleman who lives on the west coast, he is ill and frail, and despite his best efforts at being chipper and sartorially elegant, the combined effects of his age and his ailments made the joyous event we were both at kind of bittersweet to everyone in attendance who knew him.

When the event came to an end, just as he was heading back to his hotel, we crossed paths, stopped and stared at each other. I was a little shell-shocked, and given the awkwardness of the situation, didn't really know what to say.

I didn't think I should be flippant, resorting to something day-to-day innocuous like "See ya soon!" or "Take care!" or "All the best!"

On the other hand, I wasn't going to resort to end-of-the-world histrionics like "Oh my God! This is the last time we'll see each other! I'll never forget those great times, and how you..."

Well, you get the picture.

After a few seconds that seemed like hours, the words I did end up saying came out quite naturally, were simple, and if we took a poll, are perhaps the words most people would want to hear as their last.

I looked at him, said his name and then followed up with: "I love you."

Saying goodbye to anyone close is tough no matter how long you'll be away from each other. But when it's apparent that this goodbye is the final one, the toughness factor ratchets up exponentially.

Unfortunately, I've had a lot of experience with this.

As fate would have it, this blog post is being published on the 15th anniversary of my mother's passing. And although it was one of the gruelling things I've ever had to do, I cherish the memory of being able to take the time and say goodbye face-to-face on the day she died.

I had the same difficult but cherished encounter with my father four years ago, and with my Uncle Jack not long after. While the sentiments and outpourings were a little more substantial with my beloved relatives than with my friend, all four farewells ended precisely the same way -- with me telling them that I loved them.

So as learnings go, this week's is a biggie, because the more I think of it, the less I can come up with a better way of bidding someone adieu than saying "I love you."

Those three words at that demanding time are a godsend. Three words that capture a lifetime of memories and a tidal wave of sentiment.

As a giver, they express profound appreciation, encompass all the things you've done and times you've shared, and act as a warm, full-body hug that can be felt through and through like a tactile x-ray. And as a receiver, tell me...what else would you rather hear?

There are very few "all purpose," do-it-all entities in this world, but the words "I love you" are perhaps the most proficient and efficient in the English language. There are few "goodbye" occasions where they don't work.

And one where they work just perfectly.

P.S. In life, one never really knows which goodbye may be the last. So...govern yourselves accordingly.