Forgiveness at the End of a Life

Post by Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW

Forgiveness at the End of a Life

One of the most difficult things about death can be the experience of unresolved conflict. When we’ve had a turbulent relationship with the person we are grieving for, it can really complicate our feelings. Forgiveness is a good goal, but it can be hard to navigate.

When a Person is Dying

It may be that a person who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and is moving toward the end of life wants to tend to unfinished business. They may feel remorse, or have a strong desire to make amends and set things right. If this is the case, it may be that you welcome their overtures and feel ready to forgive them.

If you don’t feel ready, you are not obligated to forgive. Some damage is deep, with far-reaching consequences. Your healing will not necessarily happen on a timeline that works with the time that is left to the dying person who seeks forgiveness.

Alternately, it may be that you want to forgive their actions and look for opportunities to mend the rifts but they continue whatever attitude and behaviour caused the wounds you feel. It’s important to know that some people do not seek to redeem themselves in response to impending death. That is not your fault and you can’t control it. You can still do the work of releasing yourself from the cycle that has harmed you.

When a Person has Died

When someone dies suddenly, there may be no opportunity for conversations or actions that might have happened to help heal emotional wounds in a relationship. You’re left with unsettled feelings that may include anger, guilt, regret and shame, with no way to address them directly with the person.

Finding Forgiveness

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.
Mark Twain

It may be helpful to remember that forgiveness is for you. It is a personal process of releasing the pain of past wrongs against you. Forgiveness can happen whether or not the other person shows regrets or tries to make up for past wrongs.

Acknowledge your pain.

Accept it as your response to the other person, and allow yourself to feel the wound.

Seek some understanding of their motivation. What led them to those hurtful attitudes and behaviours?

Consider the possibility that they were doing the best that they could, even if their best was not very good and may have caused you to feel quite hurt.

Release yourself from the pain.

Give yourself permission to forgive them.

When you are ready, forgiveness is a great gift that you give to yourself.

Guilt and Remorse in Grief Work

Guest post by Sharron Spencer, SSW-G, RSSW

Sharron Spencer is a Registered Social Service Worker working in the field of Mental Health & Addictions since 2014, as a second career. Sharron currently works as the Grief & Bereavement Coordinator at Hospice Georgina. She trained in the Child & Youth Grief and Bereavement Certificate program with Sick Kids Mental Health/Hincks Dellcrest, and is nearing completion of a degree in Thanatology (the study of death, dying and bereavement) with Western University. Sharron is a training facilitator with PalCare Network of York region; providing palliative education programs to volunteers and professionals in Spirituality, Grief & Bereavement and Care for the Caregiver and also a certified facilitator of Powerful Tools for Caregivers. Sharron is also a Certified Funeral Celebrant.

Most of us don’t think about our own mortality. Often, it isn’t until we are affected by a diagnosis or sudden death personally that we have to learn how to cope with the shock, fear, anger, sadness, guilt, numbness and many other emotions that result from a death, or dying. We have become a death-denying society that resists all things related to death and dying. Our loved ones are cared for in hospital and their bodies are cared for by the funeral homes. 
In many ways we don’t know what or how to grieve.

When diagnosed with a life threatening illness, one is often filled with guilt and regrets; their lifestyle, choices they made, becoming a burden to others who will need to help provide care, leaving a family without an income and many other thoughts cross their mind.

Children and youth may be left with guilt and remorse after the death of a parent or other family members. They may believe they caused their loved one to become ill because they didn’t ‘behave’ the way they were asked to, or they may feel terrible because they fought with the person, or they didn’t spend enough time with their loved one because they didn’t really believe they were gong to die. It’s important to explore these possible thoughts and feelings with children and youth, helping them understand the death in an honest, age-appropriate way. This can help prevent them from imagining worst-case scenarios where they are to blame.

A caregiver to a loved one with a disease such as dementia can be filled with guilt for being exhausted and feeling resentful towards their loved one due to the amount care and attention that is required. They may also feel guilt for grieving the loss of their hopes and plans that have been lost due to the illness.

Guilt and remorse can overwhelm us whether we are grieving the death of someone we love or facing the end of our own life. These feelings are normal and very common. The trick is to not let the guilt take over and stop you from grieving your losses.

When we must watch someone we care about as they suffer and decline, we may feel helpless. That powerlessness can turn into guilt that we weren’t able to “fix” things. Even when we understand logically that there was absolutely nothing that we could’ve done differently, our heart takes on this guilt. Professional help can help you find self-compassion and forgiveness.

It can also be therapeutic to write a letter to our loved one who has died. Write about your feelings, including the guilt and the remorse. I often suggest to people to burn or shred the letter to release the guilt, shame and remorse. These painful feelings don’t serve you and won’t change the outcome. You can let them go and trust that you did the very best you could for your loved one under the difficult circumstances you faced at the end of life.