Forgiveness nearly always changes lives for the better, even if one of those lives is about to end. Whether we are the forgiver or the person being forgiven, the blessings flow both ways. To me, forgiving one another for being flawed human beings is an important key to a reasonably serene life. However, this mutual understanding is not always easy to come by.
Due to several email questions that I’ve received during the past month, I’ve been thinking deeply about the type of forgiveness that is often desired when families face the death of a loved one. For expert insight into this kind of reconciliation, the next logical step seemed to be to look toward hospice chaplains. Hospice chaplains use many resources as they counsel families, drawing from various non-denominational resources. Pastor Tom Holtey, who has been a chaplain with Hospice of the Red River Valley for ten years and was in parish ministry for almost 20 years, responded to my request with grace.
Throughout his ministry, Pastor Holtey has been involved with many patients and families as their loved ones face the end of life, during their passing and afterwards. He confirmed that forgiveness is a common topic during these emotional events. Here, in Pastor Holtey’s words, is how he goes about helping those who request his guidance.
Words of Comfort Used Throughout the Ages
“Every relationship, perhaps especially those within our own families, has a need for forgiveness. Most of us know the pain that can be caused when one or more family members cannot bring themselves to give or receive this gift. I have seen and experienced this between spouses, children, and siblings both before and after the death of the patient. But I have also seen miracles take place, ending long-festering anger or avoidance. However, this only comes when both people are willing to be vulnerable to each other.
“Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable may lead to saying or acting in ways that say ‘thank you,’ ‘I love you,’ and even ‘goodbye.’ I have seen these changes happen between friends, doctors, pastors and parishioners. Sometimes it is for a person who is not present or has already passed. Other times it is about their relationship with God.”
Practicing Forgiveness Now
“There are different kinds of ‘Loving-kindness Meditations’ that I use with patients and their families depending on their religious backgrounds. This concept is used in various religious traditions such as Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism to bring about positive changes in attitude and perspective through acts of kindness to oneself and others. Practicing lovingkindness can help families heal if everyone is willing to give and receive compassion in a caring, sympathetic atmosphere. This is something that we all can practice right now, acting with thoughtfulness and consideration towards our parents, spouse, siblings, and friends, as well as towards ourselves.
“None of us is perfect, and that is why we all need forgiveness. The journey of reconciliation is full of highs and lows, hills and valleys, but in the end, it is well worth the ride. But first we need to get on board and travel this journey together.”
Opening the Mind and Heart
“Prayers for peace are often asked of me by both patients and their families. Giving and receiving this understanding can be important and crucial in the provision of peace, both for the patient and for their families. I often give Aaron’s Blessing to a patient and their family during visits and at the time of death.
May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
“I also use the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, sometimes known as The Peace Prayer.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
“This prayer is an acknowledgement that on our own we are not able to love or forgive as we should, especially in the midst of hatred or injury. It also gives us a lesson in how to go about loving and forgiving, especially in the second half of the prayer.”
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
An Ecumenical Prayer for Daily Living
“We all have a need to be understood and loved. In order to forgive others, we often need to forgive ourselves, seek to understand ourselves and love ourselves. The ‘Serenity Prayer’ by Reinhold Niebuhr contains many lessons for us, not just for those with addictions. It holds deep meaning for forgiveness and daily living as well.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
“Forgiving others takes courage. Seeking serenity is not easy when others do not apologize or do not accept your apology. Receiving forgiveness takes courage as well. The next line of the prayer is:
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardships as the pathway to peace…
“Increased understanding can be a daily endeavor and can lead to joy in each day and each moment, especially in hardship. Being reasonable about our circumstances gives us permission to be happy when things are less than perfect.”
Forgiving Ourselves As We Forgive Others
“If the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father is a part of the patient’s and the family’s faith tradition, I will often pray this with them and talk about the different translations of the petition Forgive us our …
“Some traditions say trespasses, others say debts and others sins. I like these different translations, because sometimes it is we who have trespassed on others, become indebted to others, or sinned against others. On the other hand, we sometimes feel that we have been ‘trespassed on’ or that someone owes us a ‘debt’ or has sinned against us. I find great wisdom in the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu:
‘Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering—remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.’
How we react to these normal human transgressions defines the nature of our relationships. If you wish your friend, sibling or spouse to be willing to forgive, then this willingness should be reciprocated.”
A Classic Book on Forgiveness
According to Pastor Holtey, “The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living” by Ira Byock, M. D., provides some excellent in-depth reading on the topic of peace and understanding during an end-of-life event. Byock is a nationally recognized authority in palliative and end-of-life care whose book has influenced chaplains and lay people for a decade. “I consider each of Byock’s things as I counsel families during an end-of-life journey,” says Pastor Holtey.
Byock’s four things are:
- ‘Please forgive me;’
- ‘I forgive you;’
- ‘Thank you;’ and
- ‘I love you.’
Byock also adds ‘Goodbye’ to this list. Each of these principles is crucial to ending cycles of animosity, pain, anger, sadness and resentment. They are essential for mending and nurturing relationships.
Thank you, Pastor Tom Holtey, for your inspiring reminder that there are roads toward forgiveness and serenity lies ahead if we seek it. Most religious traditions, as well as support groups, rely heavily on this concept. Regardless of religious affiliation or beliefs, I believe that everyone can benefit from the underlying messages of reflection, redemption and reconciliation in each of these examples. Attempting to follow them, even one small step at a time, should eventually lead most people toward an increasingly peaceful life and a more serene passing for their loved ones and themselves.