I recently read a quote that has changed the way I think of mercy and the healing power of forgiveness. “I forgive you for not being the person I want you to be.” Take a moment and reread the quote. Amazing, isn’t it?
Okay. But what, you ask, does forgiveness have to do with grief and loss? For many it is an essential component in the process of moving toward healing. I well remember the extra layer of pain unforgiveness can cause one who mourns.
After 24 years of working through my own grief after the untimely death of my husband, Trent, and subsequently working with hundreds of others as they walk their unique path of mourning, I have long since come to peace about the tragic events of the day Trent was killed. I can honestly say I never placed blame on the driver of the truck in question but I have realized over time that I had to forgive someone for the tragic death of my husband and the subsequent pain and confusion that my family endured.
When the notion of forgiveness first came to me all those years ago, I wondered why it had become a concern. Eventually after much introspection and prayer I realized that although I logically accepted Trent’s death as an accident, I held myself responsible.
If I had only talked him for a second longer, perhaps offering one last kiss before he drove off on that fateful morning, he would not have been at the spot where the accident took place when that gravel-loaded truck sped through. The guilt I felt was irrational I know, but very real at the time. The years have smoothed the edges of my memory and I can now see that I could not have changed what was, no matter how I desired it. And I learned that all the “what if?” questions and self induced guilt served no purpose other than to keep me stuck in my grief. So, I forgave myself for not being the person I wanted myself to be at that time.
My friend Kate still mourns the sudden loss of her beloved adult daughter Bernice. It was a traumatic death and Kate is mired in the muddy bog of blame. As she described the surprising behavior of Bernice’s young husband who has sold or given away all of his wife’s belongings after only a few short months and distanced himself from her family, we talked of forgiveness.
“I want him to understand that we’re not judging him or placing any blame. But it hurts me to see how he is erasing all traces of my daughter from his life,” Kate lamented, clearly distressed by his confusing behavior — behavior that she had no control over. My thoughts immediately turned to the forgiveness quote by which I try to live these days and I felt compelled to share it with her.
“Maybe you can forgive him for not being the person you want him to be in his grief,” I said.
“Hmm,” she mused, “I never thought of it that way. Maybe it’s just too hard for him. Maybe he really is grieving, but just in a different way than we are.” We talked about the importance of forgiveness and mercy in loss and in life and agreed to pray for peace in this situation.
A few weeks went by when I met with Kate again. As the conversation turned to her daughter and Kate’s deep grief over her loss, she smiled and repeated the forgiveness quote. “That,” she said, “has made such a difference in the way I think of Bernice’s husband. It still hurts that he doesn’t come around anymore, but I am finding some peace in knowing that he is who he is and all I can do is forgive him.”
We know, of course, that forgiveness is not the only component to healthy mourning — but it is a step toward healing. Some deal with anger toward the medical personnel who are perceived to have failed at the task of healing their loved one. Others blame family members or friends for doing or saying (or not doing or saying) things that were not to their liking as they dealt with a loved one’s illness or faced a sudden death. Some, like me, blame themselves, while still others blame their loved one for dying and leaving them alone. Death places heavy demands on the order of life and can sometimes turn that order into chaos and confusion. It’s there in the chaos that we sometimes feel the need to blame.
But forgiveness is not about forgetting a hurtful situation or releasing the person (who may or may not even be aware their behavior has offended) from their responsibility — but rather it’s about our hurting hearts and letting go. Forgiveness recognizes that what is, simply is, and releases the hurt. And that can set our aching hearts free.