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How to Forgive Others After Family Caregiving Ends

Looking at the past with new insight may help caregivers get over lingering hurt, anger

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During my caregiving years, I had a list of people in my mind with whom I was angry.

There was the family member who made weak excuses to avoid caring for my mother with dementia. There was the distant relative who unfairly criticized my caregiving. And there was my mother herself, resentful of my intrusion into her life, who treated me as if I were her enemy.

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My anger seemed to me like a perfectly justifiable response. I did not need them working against me to make caregiving any harder than it already was.

This month marks six years since my mother died and my job as a caregiver suddenly ended. Nowadays, my better self tells me I should have long ago forgiven the people on my old list. But on too many occasions, I still find myself sourly recalling how others disappointed me and then feeling fresh indignation.

I am not the only family caregiver stuck in anger. While counseling hundreds of current and former family caregivers, I have heard many who are still furious at the siblings and other relatives who weren’t there for their aging parents or for them in their hour of need.

“If they couldn’t help Mom when she needed them,” I remember one former caregiver saying emphatically, “then I’m not interested in having anything to do with them after Mom is gone.” These cutoffs, while understandable, are often regrettable.

Caregivers eventually lose the person they have spent years caring for. Do they want to lose other family members, too? And would the care receiver have wanted family members to cease being family to one another?

Psychologists frequently say that forgiveness helps the forgiver even more than the forgiven and that holding on to anger only leads to bitterness. But how can family caregivers manage to forgive? Here are some ideas:

Stop insisting on being right

Former caregivers who don’t forgive are usually convinced that they were wronged and that their anger is just desserts for the people who wronged them.

But there is an old saying that recommends a different course: If you have a choice between being right and being kind, be kind. After enough time has elapsed, being right may come to feel like an empty victory if the end result is an uncomfortable family cutoff.

Being kind, on the other hand, is a necessary precondition for letting the past be past and becoming ready to forgive.

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Do not wait for remorse

Authors on forgiveness often write about how it is not advisable to forgive someone unless they express true remorse. But this advice would be hard for many former family caregivers to follow.

The family member who at first declined to help me with caregiving may still believe his priorities at that time were correct. The one who unfairly criticized me may have thought she was being helpful, not offensive.

My mother’s death ended any hopes I would one day hear her say she was sorry. I have the choice of accepting their limitations or futilely awaiting their regrets.

Develop new understanding

Unless you believe people are inherently bad, you probably accept they usually do not intend to cause pain. When highly stressed, however, caregivers may only see the people who offend them as acting out of malice.

Time changes viewpoints, though. I can almost understand now that the family member who refused to help was making a reasonable choice based on his assessment of what he could or should do. The one who was critical was striving to protect my mom. And my mom was desperate to preserve her self-identity as a capable person.

If I can accept the logic for why they acted as they did, then forgiving will be possible.

Make it genuine

Sometimes I think caregivers may forgive others who let them down too easily out of a sense of moral or religious obligation. While I respect their convictions, I also worry that forgiving reflexively may only cover up underlying anger.

It may take a longer time for the rest of us to reach forgiveness, but it may be harder and truer wrought. Feelings of anger during caregiving are normal. So is the slow softening and shifting of emotions once caregiving ends that eventually comes with healing.

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