Written by Meghan Gardner
In my work with Hospice, I have learned that people nearing the end of life talk most about 3 things:
- Their accomplishments (and if they feel open enough, their mistakes)
- Their loved ones
- Their regrets
When people who are dying speak of their regret, they often focus on the situations or relationships where they feel it is “too late” to provide an apology. One of my patients asked me the poignant question: How do I ask forgiveness of someone who is dead? I thought carefully about how to answer…
I asked my patient if the dead person were alive and provided forgiveness, would my patient then be able to forgive himself for what he had done? He thought for awhile and then quietly said “no”. I gently suggested that he could start there… perhaps writing a letter to the dead person expressing his regret so that he could begin the process of forgiving himself.
Webster dictionary defines an apology as: An admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret. When we make an error, it can be very hard to admit it. It is easier to “disown” our actions (“I didn’t mean it, so I shouldn’t have to apologize”) or to lay blame on the other person (“they did X, so I was justified in doing Y”). I’ve personally struggled with this habit for a long time. The biggest obstacle that I have found in myself was a belief in the false assumption that if I apologize for a wrong, I am removing all responsibility from the other person’s actions. It’s taken awhile (and is still a work in progress) to understand that I can own my part in the conflict without owning the entire conflict. There doesn’t have to be a dualistic outcome of being “right” or “wrong” in order for me to acknowledge my role.
The act of apologizing takes a deep courage. It can make a person feel profoundly vulnerable. And it can take time for even the strongest person to feel centered enough to offer an apology. However, the power of an apology is that it can heal the person offering it just as much, if not even more, than the person receiving it. Shame thrives in secrecy. When we find ourselves saying “I don’t want to talk about it”, we have a big clue that we have something in us that is unresolved and needs our attention. The longer it lies dormant, the harder it can be to let it go and find closure.
Our programs try to help our Heroes ask tough questions and discover their own answers. As in life, sometimes those answers are not easy and require us to step way outside of our comfort zone. Sometimes those answers make us realize that we really messed up. And sometimes, the best course of action is to own that mess and offer an apology. Even if it takes days, years, or a lifetime to find the strength to admit our role, it is worth the endeavor. It can allow us to move on. It can help us navigate our life fueled by our love and not held back by the anchor of regret.