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Minding our Elders: Family healing needed as parent’s death approaches

DEAR CAROL: My family has always had problems because of poor communication and hot tempers. That was the dynamic between our parents and seems to have been passed down to my three sisters and me. I’ve had some other problems that eventually led me to learn how to listen to others with respect even when we disagree and to use forgiveness as a way of life. I’m far from perfect but this approach has helped me.

My dad died suddenly last year with hard feelings still simmering on all sides. Now, my mother is ill with cancer and receiving hospice care. I’d give nearly anything if my siblings could be brought to my mother’s bedside and some kind of forgiveness happening between all of us before she dies. What can I do to encourage this?

– Brandon

DEAR BRANDON: I’m happy to read that you are using hospice for your mom. You don’t say whether she is being cared for at home, in a hospice facility or in a nursing home but the location won’t affect the care she receives. An invaluable part of that care is pastoral care for those who choose to make use of it.

Pastoral care is also available to family members and could possibly be your ticket to family healing. Most hospice chaplains have seen many families such as yours. They also understand how hard it is for people to gather at a death watch if they don’t get along even in good times.

You are, of course, right that if family healing is to happen while your mom is alive it must happen soon. I’d suggest that you talk with the hospice chaplain about your family dynamic. When you talk, ask if he or she has read “The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living,” by Ira Byock, M.D. If not, you can obtain some copies for the chaplain, yourself and perhaps for your siblings. It’s available online and in book stores. “The Four Things” could provide a roadmap that may help you and the chaplain bring your family together. Byrock is a leading palliative care physician and longtime advocate for improving end-of-life care.

In “The Four Things,” Byrock tells of four vital phrases that he’s seen families use to heal their relationships as they face the death process of a loved one. Those phrases, which are “please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “thank you,” and “I love you,” cover the basics of communication and love that often have been tarnished by flawed human behavior. In his book, Byrock illustrates through fascinating, true stories how relationships between adult children and dying parents can be healed.

I’m not implying that reading this book and working with the hospice chaplain to bring your siblings into the process will make all of your family pain go away. However, I do believe that the chaplain can help open some doors to healing and this classic book may help. I’m certain that the chaplain has other materials to help guide the process, as well. Whatever steps the chaplain and you work out together are worth trying. While there is no guarantee that this approach will work, you should find comfort in the fact that you tried.