By: Charles Garfield
You may have had a difficult history with the person who’s dying—it’s fairly common for family members to be caring for someone who has abused, neglected or mistreated them, or broken their trust. And if that’s the case, you may come into this dying time full of anger, resentments, and lingering pain.
That was true for the family of a jazz musician I met on the cancer ward. Don was a talented pianist who had spent his life in smoky clubs, devoted to his music. In all his years of performing, he’d rarely been without a cigarette and a stiff drink when he sat down at the keyboard. Don’s wife Jean, a medical social worker, worried over his health, and when he developed a cough and began to lose weight, she and their kids begged him to at least cut back on the smoking. But music, he made clear, was “the most important thing in my life,” and cigarettes were part of it.
When Don was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer, his family was bitter and resentful. They were scared and sad, but mostly, they told me, they were furious because he’d “brought his cancer on himself,” and because he’d always made them second to his music. It was impossible for them to visit without being overtaken by blame, judgment and what felt like years of frustration, disappointment and anger.
The past doesn’t go away just because someone is dying. But there is a chance in the present to create a more fulfilling end to the story—if you are willing to work through the emotions that are coming between you and the complex, difficult person you are losing.
If you’re extremely upset, don’t visit before you vent your feelings in private with a counselor, or by writing a letter that describes your fury and its reasons—a letter that you don’t send. I highly recommend talking to a social worker, spiritual counselor or psychologist on the hospital staff or hospice team, who can help you release your volatile emotions and focus on the words and actions that will be most healing to all of you.
Don’s family yelled, seethed and cried as they talked about him and the way he was abandoning them. They were incredulous and wary when I brought up forgiveness. (“Forgive him? You’re out of your mind.”) But as we talked through what that forgiveness really means, it was a choice that made sense to them.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean sucking it up and pretending the other person didn’t wrong you or cause you terrible pain. It doesn’t require forgetting what happened, admitting you were wrong, or waiting for the other person to apologize. It doesn’t even have to involve telling the other person you’ve forgiven him or her.
Instead, forgiveness involves setting down the burden that comes with keeping your resentment and rage alive in the present. In forgiving someone, you acknowledge your own pain, and find ways to move beyond it without changing the past or the other person. Some people do this by saying, “These feelings are hurting me. I’m going to let them go.”
You don’t have to forgive. But after you allow yourself to express your anger fully in the presence of a counselor, you may decide you want to.
I went with the family when they felt they could visit Don, and because of the work we’d done on anger and forgiveness, all the family members were able to speak from the heart more easily. I encouraged them to talk with Don about the good times they’d enjoyed—including the wonderful music that he’d given to them and his audiences—and to feel their love for him.
After four decades of training volunteers to sit at the bedsides of the dying, psychologist and Shanti founder Charles Garfield created an essential guide, Life’s Last Gift for friends and families who want to offer comfort and ease their loved ones’ final days.