Is it really the Hardest Word?
When I was a child my mother told me the mark of maturity is understanding when, how and why you need to say sorry. She said it was important to know when you were wrong and that you should never be afraid to be wrong, so long as you also weren’t afraid to admit it. She said sorry was important.
She believed a true apology took three steps. Step one was to admit to the person involved that you were wrong. Step two was to actually apologise – but she said the apology only worked if you really understood why you were apologising and what you were apologising for. The third step was to offer to make amends in a real and lasting way, but that this must never be offered as something to be done on your terms, but it must be on the terms of the person you were apologising to. A true apology is about making amends for the wrong you have done, so those amends have to be something that the person who have wronged, feels is important and necessary.
Obviously, a successful apology requires a certain degree of humility. You need to sufficiently comfortable in your own skin to be able to do this without feeling it diminishes you. This means you will actually need to care more about getting the apology right to the other person, than about how you appear.
I was speaking at an NHS Ethics conference in Coventry a couple of years ago and at the end of my presentation I asked if anyone had any questions. A senior surgeon raised his hand and asked me if Southern Health (the Trust which ran the supported living home Nico died in) have ever apologised to me. Before I could stop myself, I spontaneously laughed – I couldn’t stop myself, as the thought of them apologising seemed so totally ludicrous. I replied “No, we’ve never had an apology and I know now we never will because in order to apologise they would first have to admit they were in the wrong”. Six years after my son died, the new CEO of the Trust felt safe enough to write to me, offering to meet with me but assuring me that everything was being done very differently and that they had learned lessons.
It’s good to think that since 2012 NHS Trusts have learned lessons. Particularly as there have been so very many lessons to be learned! So very many dead relatives mourned and so very many families fighting, year after year, for recognition of wrong-doing, malpractice and harm. It’s a comfort to think that every single one of those harmed families, every single one of those cases, has brought us closer to the point where Trusts can hold up their hands to wrongdoing and apologise with humility, moving towards positive change.
Yesterday a mum I’ve been proud to support for the last 4 years received the beginning of some vindication for all that she has endured. The new investigation into her son’s death finds the opposite to the previous flawed inquest and the opposite to the first investigation which we now know had been deliberately tampered with by the Trust, in order to make them look blameless. At the helm of the Trust during the death, the dishonest inquest and the discredited investigation, their CEO must now be beside herself, mortified and aghast. Yesterday she gave a statement to the media:
“The staff who cared for Oliver did their very best in managing his complex needs as his health was deteriorating. They made decisions, as they do on a daily basis, to weigh up all the risks and sought to give him the best possible treatment. Sadly, Oliver died in our hospital and we are sorry for his loss. We are determined to offer exceptional care for individuals with learning disabilities and autism and we have already significantly improved training and support for staff. We are committed to continue learning and will act on this report.”
Did I blink and miss it? Was there an apology there at all (apart from being “sorry for his loss”)? I didn’t actually even hear a reference to the ghastly events which took place, and the unnecessary death followed by a calculated and cruel cover-up, seemed rather glossed over.
Hmmm….. Close Ms CEO, but not quite right. Let me take you through those apology rules again while I have your attention:
Rule 1. “Admit to the person you were wrong”. That means in this case THE FAMILY and actually mention them by name so it isn’t some kind of insipid blanket apology. It’s important to use all our names all of the time to remind everyone that those thousands of young people who have died in care and support, all had names and faces. They all had loving, now grieving families.
Rule 2. “Understand why you’re apologising and what you’re apologising for.” I don’t think I need to elaborate on this one, but frankly Ms CEO as no-one even mentioned the “staff making their best decisions” in your Trust before now, it sounds very much to me as if you’re really not sure why you’re apologising to and what it’s for.
Rule 3. “Offer to make amends in a real and lasting way and this has to be something done not on your terms, but on the terms of what the person you’re apologising to. It has to be what they want and need.”
And we wait………
We are waiting for you to honour your words about significantly improved training and support. We’re waiting to see if they are empty words or if they will end in lives being saved and staff never again being forced to lie and cover up avoidable tragedy.
And once again, as for us, it seems that sorry is still really the hardest word. Or maybe it’s just so very hard to say when you don’t mean it and then it just becomes another sound-bite echoing through the air. Blowing away in the wind. Until it just becomes nothing.