No family is perfect. Each one has disagreements, misunderstandings and dysfunctions. Some are minor and some are incredibly hurtful. Often, it’s the reality of illness or frailty that can prompt family members to clear the air.
While death doesn't instantaneously eliminate past hurts, making amends can offer a great deal of comfort and closure to both the dying and those who carry on.
Begin the process early; don’t wait.
While it might seem simpler to avoid the conflict, if you wait to reach out to your loved one you may miss the opportunity to clear the air with them for good. “Amends, or what we like to call delivering communication, makes a massive difference on the impact and intensity of loss,” says Amanda Lambros, director at Grief Recovery Institute Australasia.
There are many ways to take the first step: a phone call, a letter, or stopping in to see them. It’s important that you exercise some empathy, as hard as it may be, and appreciate that reaching out can be difficult on both of you, especially if a long period of time has passed.
“Being left with undelivered communication is the number one reason people seek the help of therapists post-loss. We often hear the 'if I only had two more minutes, I'd...’ and it's those things that matter the most,’ she adds.
Open lines of communication.
Violet Guides often help people navigate family conflict. "Resolving existing conflict can be a great challenge, for both you and sometimes, others," explains Wendy Stocks, Violet's Guide Practice Manager.
However, without communication, it can be difficult to come together as a family and make key decisions about the care of the ill or frail loved one, especially if you are in the primary caring role.
"In the short term, you might start by opening up the lines of communication. Listening to and understanding other people's perspectives can lessen the tension and begin to move people towards an agreement. This will help both you, your loved one and your family make necessary decisions about care, as well as preparing for what's ahead, " adds Wendy.
What if forgiveness isn't possible?
But what if we just aren’t ready or willing to make amends? Or we reach out to our dying loved one and they don’t take accountability, don’t offer the apology we’d hoped for? What steps can we take to manage the hurt of never getting closure?
“An apology is personal, and sometimes people are not ready nor willing to say ‘I'm sorry for...’ and that's ok,” Amanda says. “If someone feels that they need to ease the hurt of never getting that closure, they might be more comfortable with exploring an acknowledgement such as, ‘I acknowledge what did/didn't happen, and I am not going to let that hurt me anymore,’" she offers.
As hard as it may be, take some peace in the fact that you have said your piece. This can often have a great impact on your mental wellbeing, despite the feelings of disappointment you may also be feeling. “For the person left behind, they often feel satisfied by knowing that they told the person what they needed to and that they don't have any undelivered communication,” explains Amanda.
"While conflict within families is common, that doesn't make it easy to navigate," says Wendy. "Talking to someone who has both the professional training and personal experience to support you through it can make an enormous difference to your resilience."
Violet is a not-for-profit organisation that offers free, personalised, support sessions for those caring for a terminally ill or elderly loved one. To find out more about accessing free, personalised support sessions, visit www.violet.org.au/book