I learned something really important one day while I was helping my mother die. By ‘helping’ I actually mean ‘sitting by her side’ because essentially she had the whole thing pretty well handled herself; I just had to wait and watch, laugh and cry, and helplessly sit as her life gently slipped away. I had been much more helpful to her in the years before her death as her illness slowly robbed her of air, energy, and ability, but now my caregiving job was done, save for just being there.
The week before our mother died, my sister arrived from upstate New York to visit Mom and say her goodbyes as well. I was pissed. I suddenly found myself full of resentment and anger toward my sister; where had she been during all of the doctor visits, emergency room trips, moving house, and all of the other day to day caregiving duties my husband and I fulfilled? Now at the end, she swoops in to say a fast goodbye? I DON’T THINK SO!
Tensions were high between us for several days during that deathbed vigil, until one night around 2 am when I had reached my irrational denouement and an out and out screaming match ensued as only sisters can accomplish. F-bombs were dropping, sparks were flying, and my poor dying mother lay nearby hearing what she surely must have thought was a flashback from our childhoods.
I stormed out of the room feeling as angry as I have ever felt, and I am pretty sure that all of the injustices I had ever felt at my sister’s hands as a child erupted as well in my volcanic explosions. I was out of control, out of my mind, and suddenly I realized, out of options if I didn’t want to become encased in bitterness.
I walked back into the room, looked at my sister, and apologized. Within seconds, both of us melted into a tearful cacophony of apologies, declarations of love, and… most powerful of all; forgiveness. The anger that just moments before threatened to engulf me was gone — not suppressed or stuffed or denied — just gone. With the anger gone, the very deep and enduring love I felt for my sister flooded me.
After we recovered from the tears, laughter ensued. We walked over to our mother’s bed and told her that the feud was over and all was forgiven. She smiled weakly and said what were to be her last words, “Love each other.” We vowed that we would, and we have.
So what was my great lesson? Forgiving my sister that day wasn’t about my sister. It actually had nothing to do with her. She didn’t need it and would have been just fine without it. But I needed it. For whatever perceived hurt I had suffered at her hands (which frankly wasn’t even real — I would have cared for my mother whether my sister was in New York or standing in front of me), I was holding onto an anger that was eating away at my happiness and well being.
My anger was interfering with my ability to attend to my own grief, and my availability to the people I loved. When I forgave my sister, I forgave myself, too. I lost my bitterness like a wind catching a hat — it was gone.
I don’t believe anymore that forgiveness is something that we bestow on others if we deem them worthy of our kind regard, and I don’t believe it is something to be earned by demonstrating sufficient penance. I believe it is a gift that we give ourselves; a “Get Out of Jail” card that releases us from the prison of our own anger and resentment. It really isn’t about the other guy. It’s all about ourselves.
Epilogue: My mother died two days later, and my sister and I are the best of friends. I still find it necessary to forgive her though, when my favorite scarves go missing. Or earrings. Or shoes.
Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC, is a therapist who specializes in individual, family, and couples and marriage counseling in Denver, CO. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center.