Forgiving — what does it mean?

We all know Alexander Pope’s quote, “to err is human; to forgive divine” and while I am not sure that forgiving is divine, I have come to believe that it is necessary. During the holidays, and specifically at Yom Kippur, forgiveness is really intended to be part of our worship. We are supposed to think about those we have wronged in some way during the year past and ask them to forgive us, repairing the damage as best we can. In the abstract, it sounds simple, doesn’t it? We apologize or accept apologies, we put our lives in order and atone for our choices, our words, our inactions and our actions — anything that has been the cause of pain for someone else.

Yet we all know that there are those who cannot or will not forgive and others who are unwilling to grant forgiveness and repair the resulting breach. One party or the other determines that they have been wronged beyond the hope of repair and they hold the anger and the hurt, building a wall between themselves and the other person.

Of course, none of us can judge another’s emotions and none of us can relive the experience that created the divide that now exists. But what we can see, from the outside, is how this impacts families, especially older adults. So often we hear our elders talk about the sibling or child from whom they are estranged, about the desire that they have to reconnect and rebuild, about their fond hope that their life will not end without the opportunity for reconciliation.

One of the interesting tools that has come into use in recent years is “dignity therapy,” which was developed by Dr. Harvey Max Chochinav. Dr. Chochinav, a psychiatrist, has worked for many years with dying patients and was struck by the need people had to ensure that some element of their life went on when they were no longer living. Dr. Chochinav developed a series of questions to be used to help elicit a person’s life story and then preserve it to be shared as the individual designated.

The stories that Dr. Chochinav, and others who use these tools, have found are quite different late in life than they might have been at an earlier point. The perspective of age, of other life experiences, loss and impending end of life gives the life stories a clarity they might not have had before. Many individuals focus particularly on the relationships they have had and those that have gone astray. They long for forgiveness while knowing it is not likely to occur. These stories, and the regrets they contain, frequently end up in the hands of those loved ones after death, at a point in time where forgiveness may still occur but too late for the one who wished for it.

I have talked about forgiveness with family members of some of the older adults I’ve worked with over the course of time. Some of them have said things like “you don’t know what a terrible mother she was” and that is, of course, true. Others have recounted misdeeds, hurtful words, and the sense that their sibling was more favored than they and on and on.

None of this is trivial nor is it easy to forgive. Yet as we look at our lives moving forward without the presence of that older adult — the parent or other loved one who, despite the issues, is still connected to our life in some way, it seems to me that at least trying to find forgiveness is worth the effort. Making that effort may result in the gift of a more peaceful passage for our loved one. Feeling that we tried, regardless of the outcome, may also be the gift we give ourselves, to put the anger and hurt to rest and allow not only forgiveness but healing.