Carol Bradley Bursack, Published November 23 2008
Forgiveness offers release from regretsDear Readers: I’ve been thinking lately about forgiveness. It seems forgiveness makes gratitude more accessible. And even in these tough economic times, most of us have much to be grateful for.
I communicate with many caregivers who have had very difficult issues with their parents, for whom they are caring. Festering hurt can affect the attitude of the caregiver enough to suck any joy out of caregiving.
Few parents intend to be neglectful or abusive parents. Indeed, most want to be the best parents possible, and they intend to be better parents than their own parents were.
However, cycles tend to repeat themselves and the mom who swore she would never shout at her children the way her mother shouted at her finds herself re-enacting the family behavior. She turns into a screamer. The dad who swore he’d never hit his son the way his dad hit him finds himself lashing out.
I tell people, “If your parents would have known better, they would have done better.” They are human and did the best they could. This does not excuse abuse. But understanding this can often help the healing process, and may even help break the cycle.
If families have the opportunity to spend time together as the elder ages and becomes more fragile, they may find precious moments where the humanness and vulnerability of their elder is revealed. These moments create ideal times to ask for forgiveness for your own behavior, and to forgive should your parent seek forgiveness.
My parents were wonderful parents. They were human, and as is the case with most parents, they would have done some things differently if they had the chance to do it over. However, one of the most precious moments I had with my dad, before his brain surgery threw him into dementia, was shortly after his back surgery.
Mom had gone shopping and Dad and I had some time with just the two of us. He was telling me stories of his unusual childhood. Then, out of nowhere, he said, “I’ve always wanted to apologize for being so strict with you when you were growing up. It was all I knew.”
Dad was a gentle, kind man. However, he’d spent his teen years in an elite military school. Not long after that came World War II and the Army. He had military discipline drilled into him, so that really was all he knew.
I told him I understood, and that he’d been a wonderful father. I was flabbergasted that he even harbored these guilty thoughts, as I held no resentment about the way he treated me. But I’ll always remember that moment as one of special closeness.
I’ve written before about Ira Byock’s book “The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living.” During his hospice work, Byock has witnessed the profound effects on families who are able to say to one another, “I love you, I forgive you, please forgive me and thank you.”
This Thanksgiving holiday is a good time for families to begin this journey into healing, one tiny step at a time. Most will find that the gratitude that comes with forgiveness is priceless.
Bursack is the author of “Minding Our Elders,” a support book on family elder care, and maintains a Web site at www.mindingourelders.com. To view past columns, go to www.inforum.com and click on columnists. Readers can reach Bursack at email@example.com or write her at
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