Illness, Forgiveness, and Families by Dana Snyder-Grant, LICSW

Editor’s note: Illness and blame. Blame and forgiveness. Forgiveness and healing. My friend Dana Snyder-Grant, a Massachusetts writer and social worker, has had ample opportunity in her personal and professional life to reflect on the meaning of illness and forgiveness in families.

“It is typical for family members to adopt feelings of blame when another becomes ill,” Snyder-Grant writes. “Unconsciously, we think it is our job to protect one another from hazards in the world. If we can’t sit with the sadness and anger about illness, we look outside ourselves for something or someone to blame.” Here is her guest post written especially for Joyous Paradox.

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I write as a person who has had MS for thirty-two years, and as a clinical social worker, specializing in chronic illness and disability. I write for those of you who care for family members and for all of us who are aging into our futures. Both the personal and the professional shape my thoughts.

If spirituality is about our connections — with ourselves and one another; if spirituality is beyond ego — that is, beyond good or bad, right or wrong; if spirituality is about a connection with something larger than ourselves — nature, music, community, the breath, goodness, a Higher Power — then spirituality is also about healing. And in that healing, there is forgiveness. For when we forgive, we go beyond ego. Whether we are forgiving ourselves or someone else, we let go of the anger or the shame or the hurt. We put the past aside and become present.

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“Dad, I forgive you. I love you.” I said these words in my father’s hospital room two years before he died. He might have had some way of sensing me, but no-one really knew. I had come down from Boston to visit him, an aging man with Alzheimer’s Disease, now suffering from the flu.

Don’t we all embark on a journey of forgiveness with our parents and ourselves?

My relationship with my father had shifted in the last few years, as his dementia had become more pronounced. Aphasia now silenced his powerful verbal abuse. His lambasting insults, a sharp contrast to his recurrent tender remarks, were in the past. The years had helped me come to terms with him and our relationship. Now we had quiet times together when we looked at art books or at photos of his grandchildren. Painful memories of my childhood and adolescent years had given way to feelings of compassion for a life interrupted.

Don’t we all embark on a journey of forgiveness with our parents and ourselves? Because they didn’t love us in the way that we had hoped, or they hurt us because they, too, were human. And we couldn’t or didn’t have the wisdom yet to accept that they, too, had shortcomings. When would we finally forgive ourselves for our mistakes? And for trying to change what we couldn’t? And when would we forgive them?

I remember some words about forgiveness that I heard several years prior to that day in the hospital room. To forgive is not to condone, but to let go of one’s resentments and to heal. My father’s illness brought me closer to that moment of forgiveness.

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Did my mother ever blame herself in any way for my father’s Alzheimer’s? My work with individuals and families informs me that it is typical for family members to adopt feelings of blame when another becomes ill. Unconsciously, we think it is our job to protect one another from hazards in the world. We long to control that which we cannot. If we can’t sit with the sadness and anger about illness, we look outside ourselves for something or someone to blame.

The notion that an illness could happen for no reason is intolerable. As Harold Kushner writes in his remarkable book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, it is our human nature to make order out of chaos. Kushner also states that the real tragedy about these bad things — whether they be illness or floods or car accidents — is that they challenge our belief in the goodness of humanity (and for him, in God’s goodness). “Why can’t we allow the universe to have a few rough edges?” he asks.

Paradoxically, we come together to restore one another. My mother found healing in a support group for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients. It was a place where she learned it was normal to have hateful thoughts for a spouse whom she loved.

“He’s lost so much of himself that he is no longer there,” she said to me in the last year of my father’s life. Yet she persevered, as was her way, and supported others who were trying to care for their partners. When we break our isolation in community to give and receive, we can believe that we matter. We are then able to think more clearly and realize that much is out of our control — world events, other people, physical health. All we can control is how we respond in the present.

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“I feel responsible,” said my mother. “Wasn’t it my job to protect you from all this?”

My mother in New York City had called me in Boston, having just learned from my sister that I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Thirty-two years later, I can’t remember my reply. I now know how to respond.

“I wish it were that simple, Mom. We still don’t know what causes MS, but we do know it’s a complicated host of triggers — biological, environmental, genetic, and chance, to name a few.”

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My mother’s response to my illness was a common one. We, in the Western world, wish to control people, events, and outcomes. Thirty years ago, we were just tasting the possibilities of the new modernity with cable news and satellite television, Walkman audio players and boom boxes, video cassette recorders and Apple computers. In 2013, we live in a society and time with a heightened drive to control. iPhones and iPads, texting and Googling, iTunes and Netflix, are all contributing to a more complex world, even as these very gadgets help us navigate that universe. Aren’t these new forms of communication made for us — aging baby boomers — who forget where we put our keys and wallets, or simply, why we came into this room? No wonder we seek control.

But I digress.

In a time of illness, family members need to stay open to one another, not to hide. Hiding only fuels the shame.

I write for family caregivers. Control issues are at play in a family when illness rears its ugly head. When one family member has an illness, the entire family has an illness. Sarah has rheumatoid arthritis. She and her family need to negotiate the needs and demands of the illness; they need to journey together with the unpredictability, adapting plans in order to accommodate pain and fatigue, medical appointments, or accessibility needs. At the same time, they must all modify their expectations and assumptions. And keep the lines of communication open.

When feelings of guilt or blame or anger simmer in families affected by illness, these powerful emotions come into conflict with the love that also exists. If my family is supposed to act as a buffer against the world, didn’t someone do something wrong? Such paradoxical feelings may hinder honest communication, an important ingredient in any relationship.

In a time of illness, family members need to stay open to one another, not hide. Hiding only fuels the shame. This may be a time when you want to consider seeing a counselor or therapist to help you transform those moments when self-doubt and twisted perceptions interfere with positive action.

In a time of illness, staying open to each other as a family can help us live into the unknown as a spiritual quest — learning to let go of assumptions, expectations, and control. We can begin to accept our limitations by honoring our whole selves. We can manage unpredictability by living into the moment.

So neither my mother nor I did anything wrong to cause the MS. Or my father’s Alzheimer’s. All we can do when illness shadows our path is walk side by side, from this moment on.

— Dana Snyder-Grant, LICSW