Dr. Ira Byock is a world-famous palliative care expert, which means that he companions people who inhabit the liminal space between life and death. In addition to giving people the pain-relieving medications that they need in order to physically be at rest rather than in the throes of suffering, he also has written some advice to the living and the dying based on conversations that he’s seen throughout his career. This is because it’s not just physical suffering at the end of life that needs to be resolved—it’s also emotional, spiritual, and social suffering, suffering that many of us have carried for years or even decades. He’s written about four phrases, “the four things that matter most”, the four things people most need to say and hear as they are saying goodbye (for now) to one another in order to have peace at the end.
In this order, people need to say and hear:
- Please forgive me.
- I forgive you.
- Thank you.
- I love you.
Without saying these things, people struggle against death even more than usual. There’s no peace in dying without saying and doing what’s most important to us, and those around us live with the consequences of words left unsaid and deeds left undone long after we’re gone.
The most interesting part of Dr. Byock’s advice? He says that it’s not just the dying person and their loved one who are saying goodbye (for now) that need and can have this peace. It’s all of us, now, in this moment, even if we are about as far from our deathbed as we can imagine being.
Did you notice that two of the four statements have to do with forgiveness? It’s easy to understand why these could be important, even necessary, as we say goodbyes, but that doesn’t tell us how to get to that peace, especially when we’re in the midst of the anger, numbness, sadness, and other difficult emotions that come with the pain of having been crossed in some way, big or small. We need to have boundaries and self-preservation skills because we each have values and other things that we consider important and worth defending. It can be daunting to move forward after those boundaries are crossed, whether you choose to move forward together or separately from the person who hurt you. Many hurts are small, but what about the large ones? What if it’s a hellish process to forgive someone—is there still peace at the end of it? What if you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to forgive someone, or even want to forgive someone, who messed up a part of your life irreparably?
Forgiveness is one of the most difficult things that we do as human beings who live in relationship with one another. No one escapes hurt if they choose to risk loving deeply and opening themselves up to others. In every relationship we ever participate in, there is always the risk and reality that something (or things) will go wrong at some point. How do we do it?
I’ve discovered that it’s a practice, though I’m far from an expert at engaging in it. To be quite frank, I was even a bit upset at myself after the fact for picking this topic to write about, considering I’m in the difficult and at-times erratic process of forgiving one of the closest, most important people in my life— one whom I refuse, after thinking and praying and crying and working in therapy, to either cling too tightly onto or fling away entirely. It’s a process that I often wish I weren’t engaging in; I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t it just be easier to say “goodbye” to the pain that they have brought to me. But this is one of those relationships that I want to modify my expectations of, work on problems in, and keep rather than lose, because it’s just too important.
The way that I picture forgiveness is like a bridge that allows a relationship to return to a new sense of normalcy. It gets you over a hole and onto solid ground once again. There are times when it is best to part because the gulf is just too vast and the ground on the other side isn’t worth exploring. There are times when forgiveness is only a one-sided effort, so the bridge is lopsided and made of flimsy materials, constantly at risk of being destroyed by past traumatic memories or new present-day offenses. But it is almost always worth building this bridge, at your own pace and with your own materials, whether or not you choose to explore new ground or even see the other person again.
Forgiveness is not finding a way to condone or explain away what went wrong. Forgiveness does not always mean reconciliation and continued access to your life and your heart. Forgiveness is as much for you as it is for them; sometimes, to be honest, it’s only for you because you never communicate it to them. This could be because it’s so small that it’s not even worth mentioning. If a friend doesn’t respond to an important text message from me, or someone says or does something inconsiderate, but it’s small and unintentional, that’s not a large and difficult bridge for me to build on my own to get to the other side. However, the hurt is sometimes so grievous that I’ve removed myself from their presence by the time I even think of starting to build a bridge. The best example from my own life is this: I forgave the man who raped me, but I wouldn’t get a cup of coffee with him. He will never know I forgave him, but I did, with the help of God, because it would have crushed my own soul to hold on.
Especially in situations where you’re ending up building a bridge on your own, even attempting to forgive the unforgiveable, you will come up against your own limitations and be all too aware of your flimsy materials. Your desire to do good, but your struggle to make it happen. Your hatred. Your desire for revenge. Your sadness so deep that there are no words for it. Your numbness. You cannot build this bridge on your own, but it is so important to try that every major religious system has some mention of forgiveness as a necessity of a flourishing, vibrant, spirit-filled life. I don’t know if we always finish, or even start, forgiving on this side of things, but I do know that the Divine— your Higher Power (whoever or whatever you may call them)–has a hand in this rickety process. I cried out to my God, and over time, my God healed my heart of the hurts of my rapist, a flawed legal system that deprived me of justice, emotionally abusive friends, and many more. I still hurt sometimes, but the bridges are there, and I walk on different ground than I used to.
I am no stronger than you are. If I can do this, you can, too. At your own pace, with your own materials, separately or together. No one else can tell you when and how, but I hope you will do it for them and for yourself. There are countless physical, emotional, spiritual, and social benefits of forgiveness. I once read that there are over one hundred benefits, and I don’t doubt that, as someone who has lived and reaped them with the help of my God, communities, family, and inner resilience.
Every Saturday at 8:00 AM, a reminder on my phone pops up that says: “Forgiveness.” I spend some part of the morning looking through the events of my week to see where I’ve held onto pain, and usually, I’m able to let go of the hurts quickly and in solitude. Sometimes, they’re bigger, so I later get in contact with the person to see if we can talk it out. Rarely, tragically, I come to realize that I can’t move forward with them; the ground is just too rough, the path forward on it with them is unsustainable and undesirable, and I’ll walk better and stronger without them. There are some Saturday mornings when I skip through this reminder because I don’t want to do it; sometimes, it’s more comfortable to hold on to my self-righteousness, and sometimes, there are times when people committed grave injustices that I’m not ready to look at. But I always return at some point because someday, I hope to be able to say, “please forgive me; I forgive you; thank you; and I love you” to all who have mattered to me.
I offer you no suggestions about how to do this; if I knew more, I would tell you. I trust that you will find your way there.