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Many people experience painful or traumatic things during their lifetime due to someone else’s actions, such as abandonment, abuse, crimes, extreme cruelty, or other acts of violence. To find healing and closure, particularly at the end of one’s life, we often hear that forgiveness is the key. But can forgiveness bring inner peace?
For example, people who grew up with a religious upbringing may believe that forgiveness is the only way not to be condemned to suffering in the afterlife, says end-of-life doula Holly Strelzik, founder and president of Center for the Heart, a non-profit organization providing grief support. This pressure can then generate unnecessary guilt and distress for those nearing the end of their life. According to experts, however, forgiveness can be a path for some people to find peace at the end of life, but it isn’t a requirement or the only way to get there.
Why people nearing the end of their life don’t have to forgive to find peace
“While coming to forgive past hurts can relieve you of anger and bitterness, which can help with peacefulness and acceptance of dying, it is not a prerequisite,” says Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the How Can I Help? podcast. “There are other feeling states, such as embracing meaningfulness in terms of your life, that can also bring feelings of peacefulness and acceptance.”
Furthermore, Strelzik says forgiveness is a personal choice and can’t be forced. The person must decide whether it’s necessary for them to move forward. “I believe it’s truly a journey for someone to get to that point where they can know themself intimately and wholly in order to clearly understand what they need and honor that,” she says.
Plus, Angela Shook, an end-of-life doula professional certificate instructor at the University of Vermont, adds that the dying person doesn’t need the added pressure of forgiving. “They may already be facing physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual pain of their own,” she says. “They may be scared, fearful of what comes next, and dealing with all of that on an already depleted energy bank.”
Instead, Shook recommends holding space for the dying to process however way feels right for them. “They have the right, ability, and safe place to feel their emotions, whatever they may be,” she says. “I try to meet them where they are and offer a nonjudgmental space to review their life and experiences as they choose. We can bear witness to unresolved conflicts and resentments without pushing forgiveness. We can allow them to just be.” And this advice applies to those who are not nearing the end of their life but simply want to find peace and move beyond past hurts.
How to find inner peace without forgiveness
So what does the path toward peace without forgiveness look like? Strelzik says everyone’s journey is different, whether the person is nearing the end of their life or not. She uses her own experience as an example and says, for her, that the process looked like feeling all the emotions associated with past abuse, such as sadness, fear, and anger. “As it worked through me, those feelings, memories, [and] triggers, lost their power, and once they lost their power, I was at peace,” she recalls. “The liberation of being able to come to that place on my own was transformational.”
Strelzik’s advice? Practice compassion, especially toward yourself. “We have to be deeply compassionate for all of our feelings at any given time—whether they are fear, sadness or anger, happiness, joy, bliss, and all in between,” she says. “Once that happens, then we can delve in and work through our grief because a lot of forgiveness ties directly into grief.”
Remember that forgiveness must be genuinely felt and embodied. “If you’re not ready or simply don’t want to do that, you can always choose to no longer let the situation, the wrong, haunt you anymore, so that you can move forward with your life as peacefully as possible,” Strelzik says.
If forgiveness isn’t possible, Dr. Saltz also recommends finding meaning in other areas of life that can help you feel fulfilled. “It is much easier to move on with not forgiving if you are not consumed by anger and bitterness and the old hurt,” she says.
So whether you choose to forgive or not, Dr. Saltz emphasizes that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, condoning the wrong, or reconciliation. “It means you accept [that] this person harmed you, and you choose to move on from it by accepting it and no longer staying in the anger,” she says. Either way, forgiveness is your choice, and finding peace is possible with or without.