Monday, March 1, 2021

In Grief: The Power of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.  ~ Corrie Ten Boom

A reader writes: I lost my mom six weeks ago. We had a distant and strange relationship my entire life as she favored my brother and made no qualms about showing it financially and otherwise. During my childhood there was much conflict in the house and she didn't protect me from it and wasn't remorseful. Dad had 7 heart attacks during my teen years and died when I was 19 (I'm 53 now). Our home revolved around chronic illness and tension and anger. I resented mom during my 20's and 30's for not protecting me from my father and brother and also had trouble with her obvious favoritism toward my brother which she expressed financially. I moved away many years ago and tried to create a more functional environment for myself and learn about love and support in other types of circles.

As an adult I had to come to terms with the fact that mom did the best she could in life with what she had to work with and loved me as best she could. In the last few years I learned to meet her on her terms and accept the level of love she could offer me. I planned to move closer to mom so we could go out to dinner and go on walks together. I knew that many years ago mom and I enjoyed traveling the world together and loved walking and talking, so this seemed like a great plan and we both looked forward to it. 

A little over a month before she died I had a "feeling" that mom needed me and when I came to visit I saw that she wasn't looking well. I took her to the doctor and she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died just 3 weeks later. Our plans were tragically cut short. 

My mom asked me to stay and care for her while she was ill. During that time we had wonderful conversations, while it was possible, and most of all we talked of forgiveness and love. I told her I loved her so many times and she told me as well. We bonded and I was able to protect her when she was fearful when she couldn't breathe. I was able to protect her in the way she couldn't protect me. I was able to love her in the way she couldn't love me. All of this was so wonderful and cathartic. 

As it turned out, we healed each other in the end. At least I hope that's how it was for both of us. I miss her so much as she was my one and only last family. I don't have a relationship with my brother, so this is it for me. I don't have a mother now. I will have to mother myself and I think I learned how to do that in those last days with my mom. I truly loved her unconditionally. 

My response: Your heartwarming story is a wonderful example of the power of forgiveness and love, and I want to thank you for sharing it.   

In her insightful article, The Gift of Forgiveness, bereaved mother and psychotherapist Kay Talbot writes:

Today, in my work with grieving people. I often find that forgiveness is misunderstood. What does forgiveness mean? Let's look first at what it doesn't mean. Forgiveness does not mean condoning or pardoning insensitive or abusive behavior or acting like everything is okay when we feel it isn't. It does not mean forgetting what has happened or naively trusting others who have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. [In her book Forgiveness: A Bold Choice for a Peaceful Heart, 1992, Bantam Books] Robin Casarjian helps to clarify this: "What we are forgiving is not the act, not the abuse or the insensitivity. What we are forgiving is the people, the people who could not manage to honor and cherish themselves, us, their families, their spouses, their children or others. What we are forgiving is their confusion and ignorance and desperation and whatever it happens to be. It's not about what you do. It's about how you perceive the person and the situation. So you can forgive somebody and set boundaries and still take action. You can forgive somebody and litigate against them." Forgiveness is a conscious decision to stop hating both ourselves and others. It is an act of self-interest - something we do for ourselves to find greater freedom and peace. Even when we have suffered outrageous trauma, we can work through our appropriate anger and choose forgiveness as a powerful way to cast off the role of victim . . . When we choose forgiveness, we consciously recognize that we cannot change others, but we can change ourselves - gradually, over time, and with much difficult, emotional work . . . Forgiving becomes a process we embrace over and over. Memorials and rituals are tools we use to continue the process. Forgiveness is not a one-time event that absolves us of all future feelings of anger or guilt. Actually, guilt, like anger, can be a useful emotion. Appropriate guilt stirs up our consciences and makes us realize we need to ask for forgiveness. But inappropriate guilt keeps us from feeling forgiven and from creating a healthy future. In my evolving grief process, I have learned to identify, express and release anger and inappropriate guilt, to forgive, to seek and receive forgiveness. The person I am becoming in this process is a gift from my daughter. Not one I would have chosen, but one I choose to cherish nevertheless. My hope is that all who grieve will find such gifts within the legacy of their own lives. 

~ Kay Talbot, “The Gift of Forgiveness,” Bereavement Magazine, March / April 1999

Afterword: Thank you so much for the response to my message. It was a beautiful piece from the article on forgiveness. I'll pass that on to others. I have another question about my mother's passing.  A week before she died she said she saw various people's faces whenever she closed her eyes.  She said she saw people she didn't recognize, but they were young and old and many had blue eyes and blond hair.  That's not how people look in our family.  She just saw all kinds of different people.  Have you ever heard of that experience before?

My response: I can tell you that it is not at all unusual for a person who is near death to have visions and experiences that are comforting and meaningful: seeing family members who have died before, for example. I don't know why your mother happened to see people whom she did not recognize ~ but as long as your mother didn't find these visions frightening or upsetting in any way, I think you are free to interpret them in any way that brings you comfort now. There is no question that dying is a very spiritual and mysterious event, and parts of it are beyond our understanding and our ability to explain. (For a thorough discussion of these phenomena, see Dr. Ken Doka's book, When We Die: Extraordinary Experiences at Life's End.)

I hope you will take comfort in knowing that you did everything in your power to make your mother's passing as dignified and as peaceful as you could. You were there for her physically, emotionally, spiritually and in every other way, even as she took her last breath on this earth.  Surely she knew how very much you loved her, and I hope that one day, as you look back on those sad and difficult last days you shared with her, it is love that you will remember most.

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