During her childhood, Tiffany Day’s mother was physically and verbally abusive. So the only child was rattled when her adult friends would tell Day how nice she was.
Her single, divorced mother had changed over the years, Day admitted, but that did not erase what she had done. Then in January, her mom, 66, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Knowing that the disease would only progress, and Day would inevitably be getting more involved in her care — and more resentful — she decided to bring up the past. “I felt if I waited too long, I wouldn’t have that opportunity and would regret not having closure,” says the San Clemente, California, mother of two.
One day she just blurted it out. “My mother could have denied it again, but I was lucky,” says Day. “She apologized but didn’t really remember the harsher things she had done to me. It doesn’t matter. I am impressed she even said she was sorry. I got what I wanted. It’s not going to do me any good to pound in how mad I am. I can’t change the past, but talking to her about her behavior has made caregiving easier.”
Forgiveness is complicated enough, but when you are taking care of a parent you feel has wronged you, it is even more difficult. You might think, Dad was miserable to me and now he wants me to lovingly care for him? It may seem inconceivable to you why Mom can’t see that her behavior was destructive. Or, do you feel guilty for your feelings, of wanting that closure, now that your parent is suffering?
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These are important questions, but forgiveness is about you, not them. It is in your best interest. For one thing, caregiving and forgiveness gives your parent less power over you. It can also make you feel good for treating them well, or taking the high road — the way you wish to be treated and wish you had been. Of course, there may be situations where their treatment of you was, or is, so egregious that you cannot care for them.
In general, it is psychologically and physically healthier to get rid of anger. Stress contributes to heart disease and other serious illnesses, including strokes and depression. In one study at the University of Tennessee, those who forgave easily made fewer doctor visits and had lower blood pressure than those who held a grudge.
Forgiving a parent does not mean you suddenly have amnesia and forget. That’s not realistic. But it does mean letting go — as much as you can — of the deep, festering pain. “Forgiveness is like a gift from the gods. It helps us release the past so we can be fully present in the moment,” says John Chupka, a social worker and founder of The Forgiveness Center in Troy, New York. “You don’t have to wholly forgive a parent to care for them. The act of caring for them is forgiveness in itself.”
When is it most important to forgive? “If anger in your heart is interfering with good care, then taking the time to forgive is important,” notes Robert Enright, author of “8 Keys to Forgiveness“and a psychology professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Enright believes that we should forgive if we’re ready, but not be pressured into it. He suggests caregivers ask themselves:
“Are you so angry that this is getting in the way of your happiness? Do you want to leave a legacy of anger with your parent or would you like more from your relationship than that?”
Then decide your course of action — or inaction.
Keep these six forgiveness tips in mind:
While there is never an excuse for unkind acts, filmmaker Gayle Kirschenbaum began to see her mother differently during the course of making the documentary “Look At Us Now, Mother!” (with her mother Mildred).
Throughout her childhood, Mildred was an ultra-critical parent who was always disparaging her daughter — Gayle’s hair was “too curly,” she repeatedly told her she needed a nose job, and had wanted a son instead. To cope with the pain, Gayle changed her expectations of Mildred. “I forgave her by reframing how I looked at her. Instead, I saw her as a wounded child. I went digging into her past. When someone is being nasty to you, you better believe they are hurting,” he says.
It may seem inconceivable to you, but they may be clueless that they showed blatant favoritism to your siblings or neglected you, or whatever else they did. Apologizing and making amends may be out of the question because they don’t realize their mistake.
Even if you forgive, you will probably still feel some hurt. Clearing the air does not erase history. You have every right to be upset by shabby treatment.
Did you play any part in the bad dynamic? Is it truly black and white? If you didn’t act your best, you may want to apologize and start the conversation. Would friends or other family members, or a professional, be more objective observers?
“I have a great life,” says Day. She has made positive personal choices as a result of her upbringing. “Everything I have is the opposite of what my mother had because I don’t want to be like her.”
Rather than focus on “How could Dad have done this to me?” reframe it with, “Why am I allowing him to torment me? How is this helpful to me?”
Are you angry about your parent’s behavior, past or present? Do you think it would help if you tried to forgive them? What has worked for you? Shares your story about caregiving and forgiveness with us in the comments below.