As Jim lay dying of pancreatic cancer, he asked to speak to his father. They had not spoken for 12 years. Jim was 29 years old and left home 12 years earlier never to return. His father was an alcoholic and physically abusive towards him. As Jim’s death neared he realized that all of the anger and abuse was in the distant past and he wanted a chance for reconciliation. It was now or never. I was hesitant. Family reconciliation under these strained circumstances typically don’t turn out as hoped.
Forgiveness is such an important issue for those close to death. There is a desire to forgive those who have wronged us and request forgiveness to those we have harmed. We think we have time before we die to heal wounds, reconcile grievances and make peace. Typically that is just not the case.
As Jim prepared for the phone call to his father the social worker and a close friend of Jim’s arrived. We tried to prepare Jim for possible outcomes from the call. Jim was focused on a good resolution and was not to be persuaded otherwise, “God will not test me further” he said. He was convinced that his dad would be filled with sorrow and remorse and eager to mend the relationship while there was still time. Jim’s friend dialed the number. A gruff voice answered, acknowledged the caller and the phone was quickly handed over to Jim. As Jim started off with “Hi dad, this is Jim” the phone went silent until the dial tone was heard. Our hearts sank as we braced for his reaction.
Jim threw the phone across the room. He continued to yell and told us all to leave and that “Life” was just a complete waste of time. I tried to engage, empathize and educate to no avail so I walked out along with everyone else, my head and heart heavy. When the dying patient becomes angry all types of communication become strained.
I have found in similar situations that anger is a cover for deep sadness, too deep for most mere mortals to mend. Terminal patients can become violently angry when they have little to no power to resolve the multiple losses they are feeling. This external anger reflects a deep well of sadness, an ache they can do nothing about. Anger is a way that allows them to bring it outward.
The process of dying is not only isolated to the patient. The dying process is also a family and social process. The patient’s family changes with a progressive disability that accompanies an illness. Familiar family dynamics are challenged, and new family dynamics emerge in the process. Dysfunctional families frequently become more dysfunctional.
Jim’s anger and sadness was short lived as more and more people began to gather and offer love and support. The love and healing that Jim was seeking from his dad was delivered through his surrounding friends and family.
Over the next two days Jim’s sisters, brother, mother and many friends took turns sitting at bedside, wiping his brow, giving him ice chips and holding his hand. Stories were shared and love was expressed. The memory of his call to his father had melted away with the love that was now present and real. Jim passed soon thereafter quietly and peacefully with his “family” present. The forgiveness that Jim was seeking may not have been achieved but a sense of exoneration filled the room.
“The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone,” said Harriett Beecher Stowe. If you love someone – tell them! If you appreciate, value, cherish someone – share how you feel. If you are seeking forgiveness – ask. Then when you have to deal with death, your grieving may be a little lighter.