Maybe it's the Les Miserbles effect, but I have had forgiveness on my mind lately. Thinking about Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Javert (characters from the book/play/movie) had me thinking about the impact of forgiveness and how I had witnessed it many times with dying patients in my palliative care work.
The first example in Les Miserables is when the priest forgives Jean Valjean for stealing the silver. The priest claims that, with the silver, he has purchased Valjean's soul and given it to God. From that day forward, Valjean must be a good man.
Then I read Dr. Betty Ferrell's recent editorial in the Journal of Hospice and Palliative Nursing (December 2012)1. Ferrell, a leader in palliative care and editor of this journal, is conducting research where nurses share their stories of witnessing requests for forgiveness. She notes that scholars in psychology and theology report that forgiveness is more than giving a simple pardon. It can involve "assisting the person to acknowledge the harm they have done, to feel worthy of being forgiven, and to fully embrace the experience of the other who was involved."
Many nurses have listened to individuals share intimate details of past failings when patients are close to death. I can remember a dying woman telling me how she had rejected her son after she found out his secret -- that he was gay. She had had no contact with him for 10 years, and she desperately wanted to reach out to him as his mother. I listened intently in silence as she poured her heart out about realizing she had been wrong and wondering if her son could forgive her. The act of sharing her story out loud for the first time was very powerful for her. I believe the act of sharing her burden helped this woman achieve some peace.
A daughter of another dying patient spoke to me about her hope that her mother would forgive her for the trouble she created in the family many years before. The daughter had made amends with other family members, but never her mother. We went into the patient's room together. I brought up the topic to the patient, and the patient was able to tell her daughter she wanted to talk. I left the room as the two spoke. When I returned, they were still talking quietly. The patient told me later that she had been praying that her daughter would come to her, because the patient wanted to ask for forgiveness for rejecting her daughter for so many years. I have often wondered how the mother's act of forgiveness impacted the daughter for the rest of her life.
When nurses are witnesses to acts or attempts of forgiveness, what is our role? Being a witness to suffering, acceptance, being an active listener, showing no judgment for whatever the offending act is, and perhaps acting as a go-between to open up the process may be some of our actions.
Recognizing that all relationships have rough spots, Dr. Ira Byock2, another palliative care leader, has advocated four simple phrases the dying person should consider in regards to forgiveness:
- Please forgive me.
- I forgive you.
- Thank you.
- I love you.
What experiences have you had with requests for forgiveness?
- Ferrell, B (2012). Forgiveness in palliative nursing. Journal of Hospice and Palliative Nursing. 14(8) 501.
- Byock, I (2004). The Four Things that Matter Most. Simon & Schuster.