What I learned from my father’s death or should have
The hidden truth about Forgiveness
by Ron Parks, MD
It was early morning when I got a call from the chief of medicine and cardiologist at the community hospital where I was on staff. In a more worried voice, than was usual for him, he said, “Ron, could you stop by my office on your way to make rounds? It’s about your father. With everything I have tried, I can’t stabilize him. We need to make some decisions!” With that, I grabbed my coat and headed out the door. Our chief of medicine was the top cardiologist in the immediate area. When my father, during a visit to our home, had another one of his heart attacks, I had him admitted to our local hospital under the care of an experienced cardiologist.
With my father, I was always prepared for the worse or inevitable. My father had survived his previous heart attacks but, now in his eighties, was not in as good health. My trip to the hospital where I work and where my father was receiving his care was only a short drive from my house, perhaps fifteen minutes or less.
It was pretty different when my father had his first heart attack when I was in my second year at the University of Vermont. I got a frantic call from my mother on the dormitory payphone. In a very sober and worried voice, Mom said, “Your father was taken to the hospital; they think he has had a heart attack.” I felt overwhelmed with dread and fear that he would die. I knew he had been healthy with no prior heart problems, so it was unexpected and shocking. My mother said as calmly as possible, “Your father wants you to stay at school, as he feels he will be fine, and you’re almost a two-day car drive away, and you have no car. We’ll keep you updated on things as we know more.” I said, trying to be brave but holding back my tears. “Mom, I want to be there and will see if there is any way I can come home by bus.” She again admonished me, “Stay put as your father advised.”
I was packed and down to the local Burlington, Vermont, bus station in an hour’s time. I grabbed a warm coat on the way out as it was a typical cold Vermont evening where you could see the mist from your breath. I made the bus in time, sat in the back in one of the last seats, and rode all night with only my thoughts as my companion. Worries tormented me about whether I would get there in time to see my father again, what it would be like without him, or how he would survive with a damaged heart. We stopped at every small town along the way until we got to New York City, where I transferred to an express Greyhound bus into the Washington, DC area and was picked up there by one of my older brothers. It was the next day, and we all visited my father in the heart unit. He beamed with a warm, surprised smile when he saw me, making the tortuous journey worthwhile. He was younger and healthier then and recovered fine. Still, it would recur several times in the coming years, which I believed prepared me for his final episode when I admitted him under the care of a local cardiologist at the hospital near our home.
After the short drive from my house to the conference with my father’s cardiologist, it became apparent that Dad had taken a downturn from his recent and to be final damaging heart event. His doctor said, “We need to transfer him to an expert cardiologist at John Hopkins University Hospital, who can try some new, more advanced drugs and do procedures that only they are doing.” In other words, he said things for my dad were not very promising and that my father’s care was far beyond what he could manage at the local community hospital. I knew this to be true, being on staff at this hospital, and the probability was that this would be my father’s last bout with a heart attack after many years of skirting death with the excellent care he fortunately had. This event had left him with far too much of a damaged heart. I consulted Dad, and he was all up for it, as he realized the situation was dire and different from before and a bit desperate. We arranged for an ambulance almost immediately. To add extra medical and emotional support, I rode the bumpy ambulance with my dad, his tubes, and IVs to the famous John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. It was to be our last road trip together.
When we arrived at the hospital, and I was assisting in getting my father admitted, the profound reality came to me of how each of our lives is a composite of all these mental stories that we maintained as the narrative of our lives, which continue influencing our thinking and emotions. During our somewhat frantic but inevitable final journey, Dad, in a slightly detached and reflective way, reviewed some of his last thoughts and reminiscences, especially as the hospital was in East Baltimore, where he had spent his youth playing and surviving with his families’ struggles and hardships. To my surprise, he talked about a situation that left him bitter and resentful, a problem with a brother-in-law where he was humiliated and angry about when he had felt deceived and taken advantage of in his entering into a business arrangement that he thought would benefit him and my mother. In the context of what was happening, it seemed inconsequential to me. It should have been the least of his worries and a call for self-examination, acceptance of the things that had occurred in the given circumstances, forgiveness, and moving on. However, I knew that in his later life; he had spent too much time preoccupied with what had happened to him, which soured his relationship with his brother-in-law.
It was different several years before my father’s death when I got a call from him in the middle of the night. In great anguish, he said, “Your mother had serious indigestion and chest pain, so I called an ambulance, and they’re here now and taking her to a nearby hospital. Come right away and meet us at the hospital.” At that time, I was in my internal medicine practice and living about an hour from the hospital where they were taking her. After telling my wife what had happened, I was dressed in minutes and headed to the hospital ER where my father and mother would be waiting. It was totally unexpected for me as my mother was always the caregiver and always there for everyone else.
When I got to the ER, my father informed me that my mother’s regular internal medicine doctor was out of town, but his covering doctor was on the way. I consulted with the ER doctors, and we both concurred that it was a severe heart attack and she needed to go immediately to the coronary care unit for intensive care. When I called my brothers, I could hardly talk and struggled to hold my tears, “Mom had had a heart attack and is on her way to the heart unit and seems very sick.” My brothers were shocked as I was and said they would be there as soon as possible. My mother didn’t survive and died after several days of skilled medical care. It was a crushing blow for all of us, as we were unprepared and didn’t anticipate anything happening to Mom. We just weren’t ready to lose our mother, who was the bedrock of our family. She was always loving, forgiving, and very generous to everyone. Being a young medical doctor at the time, I felt some remorse and guilt that I hadn’t recognized some of the subtle signs of a pending heart attack.
I, as my father, would sometimes fall short on the forgiveness side of things, reminiscent of the time he brought up in his final moments his burdened thought about an unresolved relationship issue with a family member. It called to mind the biblical tale of Caine and Abel, a festered brother-to-brother relationship that ended in tragedy. The recent news about the coronation of the new King of England has the related story of the brotherly feud between Prince William and Harry.
The secret sauce in forgiveness
Forgiveness and its importance come up often, as in self-help books or addiction and recovery work. What does it really mean, and how could one benefit from it? It may not be what you think. From my perspective, the meaning is about developing increased awareness about how the mind works and its tendencies to get caught in ruts to the extent of being obsessive or harmful to the health and well-being of oneself and relationships with others. There are many reasons that memory can stay active and interact with the emotional response center of the brain, as seen in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or when memories are kept for future considerations, actions, or reactions. The dominant activity of the left brain is to work things out and bring its processing and configuring to the desired completion. The motivation for completing a desired mental formulation might be revenge, redemption, conquest, fulfillment of selfish pleasure, or self-recognition. There are tools such as meditation, compassion, and mindfulness to aid in letting go when stuck in mental traps, as with ruminations or obsessive thinking and worry.
Seeing the larger perspective and discovering more contextual information about where and why things occurred could assist in letting go of a painful life experience, obsessiveness, or mental preoccupation. Other beneficial outcomes could be reframing something in a kinder light, allowing a release from being stuck with recurring, non-productive thoughts and emotions. Research supports the value of mindfulness and self-compassion practices for mental health as improving attention skills, decreasing rumination and negative thinking, and lessening self-criticism.¹ Psychotherapy assistance can be of great value if one gets stuck with underlying issues negatively impacting physical and mental health, as when ruminations or obsessive thinking appear to take over.
To err is human!
So, perhaps forgiveness is more about taking care of yourself, getting things in perspective, and allowing the appreciation of the larger picture or more positive aspects of the situation. Getting the larger view and context is essential for the person who tends to be an intellectually predominant thinker, “left-brained.” Such a person is more apt to lose crucial details, perspective, and context needed for accuracy, relevance, the meaning of thoughts, biases, felt victimhood, prejudices, etc. If one has been the victim of another and is emotionally distraught and caught wanting revenge, retribution, or exoneration, a place to start is with forgiveness. Forgiving and accepting one’s human vulnerabilities and the same for the other may bring relief from an entrapping mind preoccupation and narrow, limiting, held perspective, as exampled by some of my guilt after my mother’s death.
The quotation from the English poet Alexander Pope, ‘To err is human, to forgive divine,’ gives credence to the idea that being human, fallible, and making mistakes, is inherent and part of being human. It is not only human and natural to make mistakes but also part of how the brain learns in a kind of trial-and-error-like process. It is like a ship on a voyage that must make many adjustments on its course to get to its destination.²
Suppose one feels responsible for setting oneself up by not being safe, too weak, or allowing it to happen. In that case, one must start with self-healing by getting a better perspective on the entire situation and then acting if necessary to enable justice towards the perpetrator to occur or to help others that may be at risk from such a victimizer if that is the situation. A neutral, trusted friend or another can help sort out these matters and aid in finding clarity and a path forward to resolve the mental entrapment.³
I had a requested consultation on Zoom with a person who had inquired about doing supervision. I remember putting it on my calendar but didn’t write down all the necessary contact details. Without the required contact information, it would be impossible to proceed unless the person re-contacted me. I realized in my rush that I had made an aggravating mistake. Reflection on a personal slip-up to me at the time felt unforgivable. For my benefit and growth, it called for forgiving my tendency to overthink things with my left brain, configuring and processing without the moment-to-moment awareness and attentiveness needed to get the necessary details.
I had not followed my rhythm or set way of doing things and established patterns to avoid these errors. Rather than being angry at myself for losing something that I had wanted to do for my valued work, I needed to remind myself of my abilities to do my prized work, but the requirement to be more aware and mindful of all the needs of the current project on which I was working. The situation also allowed me to get a perspective on the entire situation and see if some unconscious issues are present, such as not wanting to work with the person or maybe not attending to other critical needs of mine, which might be a higher priority. Nothing happens in a vacuum, so anything like the above calls for reflection rather than reactivity as anger towards oneself, which is usually the best course for the health and well-being of all concerned. So, more is called for than the simple notion of forgiveness, which in its nobility of concept, may, in some circumstances, only be the first step in getting released from entrapment in useless and perhaps harmful mind stuff.
The left brain is associated with analytical thinking, logic, language, and reasoning. It can process information linearly and sequentially, making it well-suited for tasks such as mathematics and science. The left brain’s operational need is to complete things efficiently, which requires inhibiting incoming perspective and context information from the right brain’s receiving areas. Incomplete or unsatisfactory putting abstracted materials together result in fragments that get placed into memory areas for further processing toward completion. The unfinished materials will come up in dreams as incomplete residues with linked emotional charges such as fear, anxiety, the feeling of vulnerability, or guilt. When trauma has occurred, as with post-traumatic stress syndrome, nightmares that portray imminent risks to life, one’s integrity, career, or well-being may appear. The person in the dream may feel frozen and unable to run or escape the threat.
The rubber hits the road
I was busy editing the current article about our mental awareness and forgiveness in my cozy downstairs, writer’s sanctuary, and home office, sometimes called my man cave, with a comfortable couch, writer’s desk, and computer. My flow, creativity, and productivity were moving along pleasingly. Suddenly, from out of the blue, was a blood-curtailing scream, penetrating my sanctuary of working bliss. As the only one upstairs was my loving wife and partner of many years and adventures, I knew deep in my bones that I must have screwed up in some way or at least was the blame for some unfortunate occurrence. I immediately dropped what I was doing, took to the stairs, got up to our main floor with a few bounding steps, and prepared for the worst. My wife was shouting at me now that I was within sight in what felt like an accusatory tone. “My white load of laundry is ruined with what’s looks like black ink stains from something in the wash.” Assuming I was the culprit, which is usually true in such matters, I calmly, taking a neutral stance, agreed that it was a calamity and probably my fault for something I had left in one of my pockets.
I proceeded with her to scrutinize the evidence and found that the most ruined item was one of my favorite shirts. The evidence clearly pointed to me. Acknowledging everything about the incident and my being at fault calmed the incident down some. Still, as I examined the dryer, I found black ink residue in the dryer and one of my damaged gel ink pens, which I now remember I had in one of my pants pockets. I dutifully showed concern and repentance by getting rags and carefully cleaning the dryer’s interior.
Most importantly, I was mindful of my guilt and remorse and directly focused on myself for messing up, not paying attention, and being responsible for the near disaster. I immediately used the forgiveness strategy towards myself and my wife’s outrage, to which she was entirely entitled. All done at the moment allowed me perspective and insight on the whole matter and softened me, so I didn’t get into a defensive, reactive pattern trying to outrage my wife’s rage or end up in a shouting match with no winners. We both calmed down and got in touch with all that matters most in our lives and relationships. But of course, it was my favorite shirt, and I’m still a little angry at myself, so more work is needed in the mindfulness and forgiveness area.
Tips and Points to Ponder:
1. Act when you or others call to your attention any deep, emotional attachment to some unresolved grievance or the incomplete resolution of something emotionally burdening your mind.
2. Work on what is painfully stuck and reverberating in your nervous system and mind. Get support and help in resolving it. Doing so may save you and others the consequences of problems with health and well-being.
3. Utilize your network of helpers, family, or friends, to get help or mental health services when indicated, especially if there is any risk to you or others regarding their health and welfare.
4. In reflection of the ink stain incidence, which was a small scale happening and a learning moment, a more significant and painful incidence of loss and trauma can magnify and preoccupy minds contributing to unnecessary pain and suffering. On a larger scale, when similar dynamics occur in a community, national, or world leaders, the consequence can be conflict, warfare, death, and destruction. Or, as is currently happening in our country, there is a proliferation of violence and mass shootings with high-powered guns and weapons, often resulting from unresolved conflict, inner turmoil, and emotional distress. Advocate for bringing more mental health services to underserved communities and realistic gun laws to protect everyone’s rights and safety.
The article was originally published on Mind Wise with tips, references, and resources.
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A special thanks to Shan Parks for his excellent final read-through and editor’s eye.
Lead in colleague art and caption: Loss, forgiveness, perspective, & enlightenment – by RRP with Canva help & Pictures
- Mindfulness, meditation, and self-compassion: https://theconversation.com/mindfulness-meditation-and-self-compassion-a-clinical-psychologist-explains-how-these-science-backed-practices-can-improve-mental-health-198731#:~:text=Menu,Conversation%20US%2C%20Inc.
- Origins of “to err is human to forgive is divine:” https://interestingliterature.com/2023/04/to-err-is-human-to-forgive-divine-meaning-origin/
- Forgiveness in mental health, an article from NYT Wellness: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/28/well/forgiveness-mental-health.html
See Dr. Parks’ Mind Wise for other recent and relevant articles:
anxiety, depression, Forgiveness, holistic therapies, integrative approaches, Integrative Psychiatry, meditation/mindfulness, mental health & well-being, Perspective, PTSD, trauma