How To Forgive: Wisdom From The Deathbed

06/30/2015 07:13 am ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

By anyone's standards, Jack was a remarkable man. Not because he took an extended leave from his successful business to spend time with his dying mother. Not because he came to the nursing home every day during the last four months of her life. Not because he brought her magazines, new clothes, and chocolates. Not even because he repeatedly, tenderly, told her, "I love you, Mom." Good sons do all these things and good mothers adore them.

The difference is that Jack's mother seemed to be an angry, cold parent who felt no affection for her son.

When he said, "I love you," she turned her head away. When he brought her gifts, she spat, "I told you I want cigarettes, not this crap!"

"I admire you," I told him one day. "Why?" He seemed perplexed.

"Because you visit your mother every day and treat her so well when she barely acknowledges your presence."

Jack was quiet for a long time. Then in a statement of extraordinary insight, compassion and generosity, he spoke.

"Don't get me wrong," he explained. "I'm no saint. My father abandoned my mother when I was a baby. I never knew him. My only memories are of her alcoholism and neglect -- so bad that the neighbors complained to Child Protective Services, who periodically swept me up and bounced me in and out of foster homes.

"I ran away from her when I was 12 and stayed away as long as I could. I'm only here now because the nursing home called to say that she is dying and they need someone to make decisions for her." His bitter words seemed strangely inconsistent with the loving behavior I'd observed. But then he went on.

"One day I got tired of all my anger. It was eating me up, spilling over to my wife, and kids. I made a decision to get help to let go of my resentments." Then he laughed and said, "I've put a new addition on my therapist's house with all the sessions I've paid for.

"It's all about forgiveness. My shrink told me that anger and resentment can kill you as much as cigarette smoking or high blood pressure. She taught me forgiveness is a choice; it's a gift you give yourself. Even when there's no apology from the person who hurt you, you can still learn to forgive.

"It hasn't been easy, but finally I got it that this forgiveness thing is all about me, not my mom. I've given up my fantasies about my father coming back and my mother baking me cookies. That will never happen. My mom is who she is, but she's still my mom." He paused again before continuing. I waited.

"Actually, I did find some good memories when I was clearing out her apartment. She'd kept my baby book and pictures of me when I was little. I think she tried her best, and then life got to be too much for her. Forgiving her helped me begin to heal and let go of the emotional baggage I've held on to for all these years. Coming here every day helps me in a selfish way because I actually enjoy taking care of her and other residents. If she had died before we reconnected, I wonder if I could have healed or forgiven her or myself."

As Jack's mother grew weaker, another little hospice miracle unfolded: it seemed that the weaker Jack's mother became, the sweeter she became. She stopped cursing her son and began to melt the ice she had packed around her heart. At first she simply said hello and looked him in the eye. Then, little by little, she began to gruffly acknowledge his gifts and his presence. They didn't talk much. Neither of them brought up the past. Jack simply came daily and stayed until she died.

I asked my clinical psychologist mother to tell me what she thought about Jack. This is what she said:

"I believe Jack's mother never stopped loving him. Her rejection of him was a way of protecting herself from the overwhelming shame and guilt she felt. Because she could not forgive herself, she couldn't believe that he could forgive her. So convinced was she of her guilt that she was unable to meet his gaze. What feels like harsh judgment from another person may be harsh judgment of self and regret for the pain we've caused.

"Jack was courageous in that he was willing to return to the source of his pain. Offended people are more likely to become grievance collectors, dragging heavy gunnysacks full of rocks of anger and pebbles of resentment through life. They never learn that getting even and inflicting more pain does not heal pain; instead, it creates more anguish.

"Actually, forgiveness is simple, but it is not easy. It can be so difficult that given a choice to forgive or die, many people would rather go ahead and order a coffin. To help gain perspective, I've often asked my clients, "On a scale of one to ten, with ten being dead, how important is this old grudge? Or, with so little time remaining before eternity, does this old wound matter?"

"Estrangement between people often follows offenses far less grievous than those Jack suffered. Indeed, when asked why they are so divided, many people cannot even recall the original offense. In some families children inherit their enemies along with their teething rings. What Jack learned and practiced can be used in anyone's everyday life. The Dalai Lama teaches that forgiveness brings happiness. Where there is anger and hatred, he says, the practice of patience and tolerance quite naturally leads to forgiveness."

People can learn and change until the last breath. You can't alter the events of the past, but you can make a last journey back to forgive yourself and others for being imperfect rather than carry such burdens until you die.

No matter what has happened in the past, forgiveness is always possible. When time is short and words are hard to come by, borrow the words of a hospice physician who suggests that his patients and family members use a simple, all-purpose, last-minute forgiveness mantra, spoken from the heart: "Please forgive me, I forgive you, I love you, thank you." Even if you see or hear no response, you will be heard.

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