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Forgiveness Minimizes the Regrets
All the passages below are taken from William H. Griffith’s book, “More than a Parting Prayer---Lessons in Care-giving for the Dying.” It was published in 2004.
You may ask: "Dear God, why me? Why us?"...
Know this: No one has a complete understanding of why good people go through such tortuous times. No philosopher or theologian has a cosmic computer to plug into this unknown secret formula.
-Earl A. Grollman
I FIRST MET LOIS on my routine rounds one Saturday morning. She was an eighty-two-year-old woman who had survived a stroke several years ago and now faced a terminal illness. I discovered quickly that she was a woman of faith who had the support of her church. There was something that clicked between us in those few minutes we spent together. Before leaving the unit that morning, I stopped by her room to say good-bye to the charge nurse who was working with Lois behind the privacy curtain. When she heard me, Lois said in her stammering, stroke-hindered voice, "Good-bye, Bill."
I replied, "Good-bye, Lois."
The next time I appeared in the unit, I was met by a social worker who was talking with a young lady, and when I approached, the worker said to the young lady, "This is Bill." It was as though they had been talking about me, and I soon discovered that indeed they had been.
The young woman, Sarah, was Lois's daughter, and she had been asking who Bill was, as her mother had asked for me on several occasions. I spoke briefly with the daughter, and then we went in together to visit with Lois. I gathered from the conversation we had that there was a strained relationship with another daughter, who hadn't seen her mother in over four years. It wasn't something they were eager to talk about at that time.
Over the next two weeks I visited Lois each time I was in the unit. Her charts indicated that she was unhappy and even angry at times with different staff members. As a staff we discussed this, and the social worker asked me if, since Lois thought so much of me, I would try to find out what was troubling her. I said I would and went right to Lois's room.
As we talked, I could see in Lois's eyes a troubled look and a heavy brow that showed signs of fear. I confronted her with what I'd noticed by saying, "Lois, are you afraid of something?"
"Yes," came the reply.
"Are you afraid of dying?" I asked.
She said, "No."
I then asked, "Are you afraid you might die before you can do something? Is there something that you are afraid will not get done before you die?"
And she said, "Yes."
As I looked into her eyes, in which small pools of tears were beginning to form, I asked, "Would you tell me what it is that you are afraid won't get done?"
"My daughters won't believe that I'm sorry for how I've treated them."
I then listened as Lois told me how she had not been a good mother, had abused her daughters verbally, and at times had treated them very badly. She had often told them she was sorry, but she then did it again, so that after several times of expressing her remorse she just returned to her old ways. She knew it was why her other daughter had refused to see her anymore. But neither did she feel that the daughter, Sarah, who had been so dutifully caring for her, had accepted her pleas for forgiveness either.
I prayed with Lois and promised her that I would do what I could to help ease her fear and give her peace before she died. I spoke with the social worker, and we agreed that it would be good for me to contact Sarah, who was helping with the care-giving in hopes of facilitating reconciliation. The daughter was surprised that her mother had expressed this concern, and she said she would do anything to help bring her mother peace of mind, but she knew that her sister would not. We agreed to meet the following morning at eight.
I entered the room with Sarah. I went to the bedside, greeted Lois, and told her why we had come together. I asked her if she wanted to make things right with her daughter, and she said she did. I then listened as mother and daughter shared a conversation of forgiveness that covered years of each mistreating the other. Both were able to verbalize love for the other, as well as the desire to forgive all that had gone before.
It was a moving experience to stand at that bedside and experience the grace of God working in and through the shared love of a mother and one of her daughters. This was a bittersweet moment because one daughter still refused her mother's love. It was a privilege to then lift them up in prayer. At the conclusion of my prayer, Lois said, "I'm ready to go now."
And the daughter replied, "And now, Mother, I'm ready to let you go."
Lessons for Caregivers
People may share the same spiritual heritage and may as a family physically relate to one other on a daily basis, yet they may still be living miles apart. Time passes and relational conflicts are ignored because the present circumstances permit each person to focus on something more demanding and more tolerable. For instance, both Lois and her daughter were greatly influenced by the Christian faith. Each knew and valued the teachings of the church that had molded their spiritual journeys. As family they also shared a past of mutual conflict, and both carried the scars of previous battles. Both had their regrets, which were best described in their confessions of "woulda, coulda, shoulda." But Lois's failing health thrust her daughter into the role of primary caregiver, and she fulfilled it out of her sense of duty and the knowledge that her sister was never coming home. Taking care of her mother's physical needs became the central focus of their communication and permitted them to ignore the deeper relational pain they had both experienced.
As Lois's health continued to deteriorate, she suffered from the knowledge that she might die without reconciling their relationship. She feared making things worse and causing a bigger rift between them, yet she didn't want to die without at least trying one more time.
The caregivers who were with Lois daily were alert enough to notice that her mood changed as she declined physically, and they were concerned. The restless fear they observed needed to be addressed by someone, and as a team they evaluated who would have the best opportunity to help her. That process provides an important lesson: Each dying person has many caregivers, and they must work as a team for the good of the patient. Each has developed a different level of trust with the patient, and knowing who does what best ensures that the patient will receive what is needed.
When you are the caregiver whom the patient trusts the most, you have both a tremendous responsibility as well as a wonderful opportunity. Because of the level of trust you have with the patient, you are able to be direct and confronting. When you sense that the person's life has been strongly shaped by religious values, you can ask questions and discern if the dying person has some unfinished business related to those values. When you are able to name the emotion you see in the patient, such as Lois's fear, then the patient can address that emotion. Once the patient finds the source of the emotional problem, she finds hope that maybe something can be done about the problem before she dies.
Once the caregiver and the patient agree about what the patient hopes will happen, then the caregiver must act to facilitate the process. In my experience, facilitating forgiveness becomes the means of freeing both the dying patient and those with whom she has struggled in relationship from future regret. [59-63]
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