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. 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.