Forgiveness nearly always changes lives for the better. Whether we are the one offering this gift or the person who is 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.

Recently, I’ve been thinking deeply about the type of forgiveness that is often desired when families are faced with the illness and death of a loved one. For expert insight into this unique kind of reconciliation, I turned to Pastor Tom Holtey, a chaplain with Hospice of the Red River Valley based in Fargo, North Dakota.

In his 20 years of experience with parish ministries and 10 years of hospice work, Holtey has guided many families through difficult dynamics and end of life issues. He confirms that forgiveness is a common topic of interest during this emotional time. Hospice chaplains like Holtey use a wide range of resources in their work, many of which are non-denominational. In the following passages, Pastor Holtey explains in his own words how he goes about helping those who request his guidance.

The Importance of Forgiveness

“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 a patient. But, I have also seen miracles take place, ending long-festering anger or avoidance. However, this is only possible 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 done for a person who is not present or who has already passed away. Other times it is done to strengthen or reaffirm one’s 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 loving kindness can help families heal if everyone is willing to give and receive compassion in a caring, sympathetic atmosphere. This is something that many strive for when a loved one is ill and nearing death, but it is also something we can all practice right now. Acting with thoughtfulness and consideration towards parents, spouses, siblings and friends, as well as towards ourselves, is important throughout life.

“None of us is perfect, and that is why we all need forgiveness. The journey toward reconciliation is full of highs and lows, 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 crucial in the provision of peace for everyone involved. I often give ‘Aaron’s Blessing’ during visits and at the time of death.”

Aaron’s Blessing

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.

“The ‘Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi’ (sometimes known as ‘The Peace Prayer’) is another I use often. It 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.”

The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

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.

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.

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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, understand and love ourselves first. The ‘Serenity Prayer’ by Reinhold Niebuhr contains many lessons, and they are not just for those with addictions. It holds deep meaning for forgiveness and daily living as well.

“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. Increased understanding can be a daily endeavor that leads 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.”

The Serenity Prayer

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.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace…

Forgiving Ourselves As We Forgive Others

“If the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ or the ‘Our Father’ is part of a patient’s faith tradition, I will often pray this with them and talk about the different translations of the petition about forgiveness. Some traditions reference trespasses in this prayer, while others use the term debts or 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 parent, child, 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 Dr. Ira Byock provides some excellent in-depth reading on the topic of peace and understanding during end-of-life events. Dr. 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 ‘thing’s as I counsel families during an end-of-life journey,” says Pastor Holtey.

Byock’s four things that matter most are:

  1. “Please forgive me.”
  2. “I forgive you.”
  3. “Thank you.”
  4. “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.

Most religious traditions, as well as support groups, rely heavily on this concept of seeking serenity through forgiveness. Regardless of religious affiliation or beliefs, I believe that everyone can benefit from the underlying messages of reflection, redemption and reconciliation in each of Pastor Holtey’s 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.