Beliefnet
Just last week, Harriet was in mental distress and turmoil. She was having frightening dreams about her loved ones chasing her about and picking at her skin with their long, bony fingers. "They were scary," she said. "They looked like ghosts, like specters. And all of them were dead. They would not leave me alone."

Now, she gracefully reached out and draped her hand over mine. "It is so good to see you, Father." I could see Harriet had been very busy. She was actually at peace, calm, relaxed, and gentle in her bed of dying.

Harriet is one of a great many hospice patients I have known who affirm the power of letting go, the freedom to be found in forgiveness. We all carry emotional baggage with us. In hospice work, we often see that life offers moments when it becomes apparent that it is time to put the baggage down and to move on; time to walk with no grasp, no care, no responsibility.

Harriet and I spent some time talking about these haunting dreams. As time wore on, Harriet related that all of these "loved-ones" were not only dead, but they were all people with whom she had some unfinished business. They were all people who had snubbed her and ignored her after she married.

It became clearer and clearer to Harriet, as she spoke, that these relatives were visiting her for a reason. They were trying to tell her something. She insisted they were coming to her for forgiveness. They wanted to be set free from some kind of limbo. They were there for themselves.

I agreed that sounded plausible, but offered another possibility: "Maybe they were picking at you to help you out of your situation. Maybe they are not here so much to get off the hook, as to let you off the hook. I mean, if they wanted to ask your forgiveness for themselves, couldn't they wait a few weeks to see you face-to-face?" She agreed.

"Is it possible, Harriet, that all of this agitation and picking you are feeling is attached to some anger, pain, or abandonment you might be holding on to? Could those feelings be attached to the way your relatives treated you? Or, maybe they are trapped in your heart and mind and are trying to get out." There was a long pause.

Harriet agreed there were things she was holding onto concerning those relatives, and maybe that was why they were tormenting her. It had not occurred to her that her dream could be about helping her out of her own anguish. I told her it was common for us to think about forgiveness in terms of letting other people free, but in fact it may be more about freeing up things in ourselves and improving the space we inhabit inside ourselves.

So often we view forgiveness and reconciliation as an outward flowing energy and gift: forgiveness flows out from us, to another person to heal them. But, in most cases, the strongest healing action of forgiveness is an inward flowing energy and gift: forgiveness allows us to let go of the pain, anger, humiliation, and responsibility associated with the actions and responses of others. Forgiveness is not always about helping other people to be set free, or receive grace and healing. Forgiveness is also about setting ourselves free from things we have held onto for too long.

This was the case for Harriet. She was allowing herself to be pestered by her dead relatives so she could heal some inner wounds before she died. What a dream.

Harriet told me of the forgiveness she offered her relatives. "I closed my eyes and pictured each relative - one at a time. I told them how much they had hurt me. I told them they had been cruel. I told them I was not happy with what they did, but that I would forgive them so I could move on and become more loving. I told them that I was not going to hold on to the pain and hurt and anger anymore. I did not need it. If they wanted to accept this forgiveness, it was up to them. I put down the suitcase I had been holding, and brushed my hands off. Then, I gave each of them a piece of fruit, and asked them to try to be kind to me. I walked away. I felt so calm and clear. I felt like I had moved ahead and become free."

I could not believe the change in her appearance. Even as she told me the work she had done, she became lighter, freer. She was at ease.

Harriet died that week. She died peacefully, in her sleep. The day before she died, she dreamt of a beautiful walk on the beach. There were no pestering relatives, just miles of rhythmic pounding waves, the hypnotic serenity they bring - and the freedom of carrying nothing.


Adapted with author's permission from an article previously published in Bereavement Magazine.

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