I remember one time a man, wanting to work through his grief, came to one of our Living and Dying workshops and told us that a couple broke into his home and killed his wife, stabbing her 17 times. Many years later he wrote The Forgiving Place, a book on the painful process of how he was eventually able to forgive her murderers.
On May 13, 1981 four days after being shot, Pope John Paul II offered forgiveness to his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, from his hospital bed. Then in 1983 the Pope actually met with Mehmet in prison and offered him forgiveness.
Mrs. Eva Mozes Kor, a survivor of the Nazi’s torturous experiments on Jewish twins, in a gesture of forgiveness, was able to embrace former Auschwitz guard Oskar Groening. When she was asked how she could forgive him after what she went through in Auschwitz, she explained, “…the victim has a right to be free, you cannot be free from what was done to you unless you remove from your shoulder the daily burden of pain and anger and forgive the Nazis – not because they deserve it, but because I deserve it.”
Perhaps one of the most profound stories I have heard is the story of a woman from Rwanda, Immaculee Ilibagiza, who survived the slaughter of nearly a million ethnic Tutsis by hiding in a Hutu pastor’s bathroom with seven other women. Though most of her family was brutally murdered, with her deep faith and her profound connection to God she was able to transform her pain and forgive her tormentors.
Wayne Dyer in the introduction to Immaculee’s book, Left to tell, writes, “…as she abandoned all of her feelings of hatred and revenge toward the killers—and despite what once seemed an impossibility—she merged into Divine union with God by offering her tormentors not only compassion, but total forgiveness and unconditional love as well.”
Often a person who has offended or hurt us comes from a place of ignorance; ignorance in the sense of having a different perspective than us, being prejudiced towards us, or perhaps not even knowing that they have caused pain. The death and crucifixion of Jesus is a prime example of this. He in his infinite wisdom knew that his persecutors were ignorant of the profound purpose of his life and who he was. Jesus was able to see humanity for what it was when he said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
It isn’t just the violent traumas that we need to work through and forgive. It is often the little day-to-day insults and betrayals that we experience on a regular basis that feel hurtful and wear on us.
When I asked my 11-year-old granddaughter, Destany, how she felt about forgiveness, she said, “It is hard to forgive when someone hurts me or my friends. The worse it is, the harder it is to forgive.” She gave me an example of when she froze during PE class while playing football and was unable to catch the ball. “They made fun of me.” She said, “That really hurt, so I decided to practice until I became confident enough to do well, and not care as much about what the others said.” She told me, “In my heart I forgive them grandma; I really do, but it still hurts.”
During our lifetime we are going to feel devalued, misunderstood, abused, and hurt by others. Forgiveness does not mean condoning what the person did. Forgiveness allows us to release the pain and move forward with love to live a more healthy and meaningful life.
Often when we are abused we end up abusing others, so we become the ones who hurt, judge, abuse, and devalue others. We not only need to get to the point of forgiving the abuser but also forgiving ourselves. At some point we need to take responsibility for our lives, and what we do so that we don’t continue the abuse; healing, forgiving, and owning one’s part in the situation.
What is it about and what does it take to forgive someone? Everyone is different and has to go through their own process in getting to the place of forgiveness. But I would like to explore with you what my experience has been and also some of the things that these authors say about the process of forgiveness.
We all have someone who we need to forgive regardless if there was actually intentional pain inflicted on us, unintentional pain, or if it is simply our own perception of a situation that is upsetting to us.
I spent years in therapy after my father died trying to get to the point of forgiving him for my strict and punitive upbringing. I was 27 when my father and my brother died. My father died of pancreatic cancer and my brother, Jimmy, died 10 months later from a motorcycle accident.
I had no conscious thought that I was blaming my brother for his death. One day, shortly after he died, my psychology professor suggested that we beat on a pillow to see what we are angry about. I was shocked to realize that I was angry with Jimmy. It was as if I had to keep it in my unconscious mind because it seemed to contradict our close relationship. Perhaps a part of me also felt that I wouldn’t have been able to continue with the nursing program that I was in at the time and raise my children if I felt the pain and confusion that was arising. Whatever the reason it didn’t even enter my conscious mind that I was angry with Jimmy. Besides, when I did realize it I told myself it was totally illogical; Jimmy didn’t want to die.
My son was a passenger on a motorcycle when his friend, Brian, misjudged a turn and crashed. My son’s death was tragic and it took many years to slowly work my way through the intense pain. Talking about illogical, it wasn’t Brian who I was angry at it was his parents. I know they were in pain too and I felt for them when they came to the funeral and apologized, but though I was gracious I avoided them as they were too much of a reminder of the feelings I didn’t want to feel in those first weeks of Ted’s death.
Many years later when my mother was hit and killed by a drunk driver I felt numb. A psychic friend told me that this was a soul agreement between the driver and my mother, and that this experience would help him turn his life around. I don’t know if that was true or not, but it sounded like something my mother would do, and it was comforting to believe that there was a meaningful reason for her death. He did spend jail time and he did apologize which made it easier to forgive him.
Through the years I have gradually accepted the loss of my loved ones, and forgiven those responsible for the their death. This has come from a lot of opening to the pain, prayer, meditation, journaling, spiritual practices, and support from others.
Part of the process has been in forgiving myself. Often the person we are the hardest on is ourselves. To the extent that I have forgiven and have released the fear, anger, hurt, resentments, judgments, anger, guilt, regret, and shame in my life my capacity to love has grown.
So, how do we work our way out of hurt, anger, and disappointment to get to the place of acceptance and forgiveness?
If one is sincerely interested in letting go of the painful emotions that block the love and forgiveness then when the chattering enters the mind, don’t ruminate about it. Feel where the pain is in the body. Without pushing it away, breath into it. This helps us to release the pain and allows insights to arise.
Richard Gayton in his book The Forgiving Place writes, “Today you and I begin a journey of forgiveness. Not a superficial, papering over of the fact that you or someone you love suffered violence at the hand of another, but rather the hard daily path of grieving, pausing, remembering, learning, and finally letting go of the hatred of the one who did the harm. Thus, even though we will not “make nice” using psychological and spiritual nostrums with rape, child abuse, wife beating, assault, suicide, and murder, we will deny these acts of violence the power to destroy our lives.”
Yes! We do need to go through the hard daily path of grieving before we can finally let go and forgive. As Phil Cousineau says in his book Beyond Forgiveness, “We can live a life of hatred and revenge or love and forgiveness.” It is hard work going deep within and maneuvering through these dark places but to me it is well worth the journey.
When we have any painful experience we go through a process of grieving before we can get to the place of accepting what has transpired in our lives. Often it is only then that we can start to forgive.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying writes about the five stages that people go through when they are dying. We have since realized that these stages make up the process we all go through anytime there is change in our lives.
Of course it isn’t as rigid as being in any one stage and then at a certain time one goes to the next stage. The process is more fluid than that and at times we get stuck in one of the stages and it takes a long time to work our way out of that stage; other times we need professional help.
Here is a synopsis of the five stages:
__Denial – The initial response is often an avoidance of or refusal to acknowledge what is happening.
__Anger – Feelings of rage, envy, and resentment tend to arise as the denial begins to ease.
__Bargaining – Attempts to enter into some sort of agreement that may postpone the inevitable may then appear for brief periods.
__Depression – Denial, anger, and bargaining are gradually replaced with a great sense of loss or a deep sadness.
__Acceptance – Coming to terms with the inevitable follows.
Kubler-Ross says that we actually go through these stages several times a day as we encounter unwelcomed changes in our lives. The loss and the grieving process that follows may involve a small thing that happens in a split second or something that is very traumatic and can take years to move through.
She asks us to imagine being intensely involved in reading an interesting book when the phone rings. What is the first thing we do? We deny that the phone is ringing. We may say something like: “that can’t be the phone!” Next comes a feeling of anger and frustration. We may say: “Who on earth can that be?” Bargaining usually follows: “Well, I will just read one more line!” Then comes the depression: (after a long sigh) “I’d better see who it is.” You then answer the phone and find that it is your best friend. “ Oh, hello Sarah, how are you?” You’ve now forgotten about the book, accepting the fact that you were interrupted.
This whole process can take as little as two or three rings of the phone or years of intense work. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance are all aspects of the process that we go through in order to let go of whatever we are attached to. We are actually grieving much of the time without even realizing it.
Marianne Williamson says, “Without forgiveness, there is no love; and without love, there are no miracles… Forgiveness, therefore, is the most essential key to happiness. Sometimes the challenge is to forgive others, and sometimes the challenge is to forgive ourselves. But suffering remains until we forgive.”
I believe the main reason we are here on earth is to learn to open to love. We have many opportunities to learn this through bringing awareness to our painful experiences and getting to the point of letting go and forgiving others and ourselves. I have noticed that as we accept life’s lessons and learn to forgive, our love expands, and out of this process service to humanity becomes an enjoyable adventure.
Love and Peace,
Opening to Dying and Grieving: A Sacred Journey by Ron Valle and Mary Mohs
On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.
Tears to Triumph by Marianne Williamson
Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza
Radical Forgiveness by Antoinette Bosco (two of her sons died)
Everybody Needs to Forgive Somebody by Allen R. Hunt
The Forgiving Place by Richard R. Gayton, Ph.D
Beyond Forgiveness by Phil Cousineau
Mary Mohs LVN, MA, RYT,