The Gift of Forgiveness


Writing the Letter You Never Send

He who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself. George Herbert

Our loved ones die and we are left to pick up the pieces. We may try hard to create a picture-perfect vision of our loved one, but some of us have unfinished business with the deceased: regrets, anger, or pain. Death leaves an emotional gap regardless of the quality of the relationship because it does not erase the life we shared.

Grief can be complicated due to unresolved conflict, regret, or negative history with the person who has died. Some of us grieve for lost love, and some of us grieve for what could have been but never will be. Most of us experience a range of emotions. Normal intense grief feelings can fluctuate between love, loss and sadness to anger, guilt and despair.

A little store near me sells small meditation stones with various words engraved in them: words such as courage, gratitude, believe, kindness, wonder, forgive, and expect miracles. They are placed around the home or office to remind us to practice that word or hold that quality in our everyday lives.

The trinkets sold very well, except for the forgive stones. The owner couldn't sell them, even at half-price. She told me that either very few people had anything to forgive, which she found hard to believe; or, very few people wanted to be reminded of the need to forgive and be forgiven.

Forgiveness does not mean condoning hurtful or ignorant behavior, but it does involve letting go of the past. Resentment literally means to re-feel or feel again. It saps our energy and allows us to be controlled by another—alive or dead. Our unwillingness to forgive attaches us all the more to the pain of grief.

Forgiveness is not a weak or passive act. The act of forgiveness cannot be forced, but once achieved, offers the freedom to grieve and heal in the present. Giving forgiveness will not change the past, but it will assuredly change us, and the possible future, forever.

Is there anything we can do to make peace with less-than- perfect relationships after a loved one dies? I believe that writing unsent letters to people who have hurt us—alive or dead—can be liberating. By knowing we are not going to post the letter, we have complete freedom to say anything we want in any language we want.

Writing letters that we do not mail is a safe expression for the raw emotions of grief. We can become physically ill if we do not give voice to our powerful emotions. Venting the anger and/or resentments we have towards our loved one will free us from trying to keep our negative emotions out of awareness and under control.

Please note: The purpose of writing letters to deceased loved ones who hurt you in life is to move in the direction of healing. Going over and over a particular incident for the sake of repetition only serves to get you stuck in the past and gives power to your pain. The wound becomes the defining characteristic of your grief.

The letter writing described here is a means of letting go. The whole idea of letter writing is to fully express any negative emotion that you harbor so you can move towards forgiveness. We do not forgive others because it is the right thing to do. We forgive because it is the loving thing to do for ourselves as we grieve.

Try this: In the letter to your deceased loved one, clearly state what happened, why it hurt you and how you felt about it at the time. Describe the ways this wound has had a lasting effect on your life. What have you missed because of it? State how you feel about it now. Don't censor your writing. Use powerful language and say everything you need to say to this person.

When you can write no more, read the letter out loud to yourself as though you were actually addressing the person face to face. You may also want to read it to a picture of your loved one, or at the graveside. Put as much anger and hurt into the reading as you truly feel. After you have done this, breathe deeply for a while to bring yourself back to a state of calm. Do you feel differently, now that you have found a safe voice for unexpressed emotions?

Receiving Forgiveness


If we are willing to give forgiveness, we must be willing to receive it. If you are a woman, it is probably easier to give than to receive. Think for a moment how effortless it is to give someone a gift. Now recall how difficult it is to receive one. The same is true for receiving the gift of forgiveness.

In grief, we need to examine how we hurt our loved one while he or she was alive because regret over the past is debilitating to our healing. Is there anything we can do when direct reparation is not possible because of death? One method that has worked for me is to write a letter of apology to my loved one. Use a photograph or mental picture as a connection to your special person as you compose the note.

Read your letter of apology at the graveside, stay a while and leave flowers. If there is no grave, or geography prevents a visit to the cemetery, read the letter out loud while looking at a favorite photo of your loved one. You might want to light a white candle or place flowers by the picture. Grief rituals are personal. Follow your heart.

If you don’t want to write a letter, you can imagine a conversation between you and the one for whom you grieve: What would you say? What would he or she say in return? Would you want that person to be without flaws? Such a person would bear little resemblance to the one you love. No more than that person would want perfection from you. You wouldn't be recognizable, either. Love makes all kinds of allowances—and keeps on loving.

In the 2005 movie An Unfinished Life, Robert Redford portrays a father grieving the accidental death of his son. In the last scene, the aging actor asks his friend, played by Morgan Freeman, if the dead really care about our lives? Freeman’s response: "Yeah, I think they do. I think they forgive us our sins. I even think it's easy for them."

From Healing After Loss by Martha Whitmore Hickman, September 3 entry:

What are we to do with those nagging “if only” feelings that linger—If only I had (or hadn’t) said that. If only I had visited more often, or been less of a burden. Have they forgiven us, those who have gone on before? We have only our conjectures. But if death is an experience of consciousness, then surely it is of enlarged consciousness, of more inclusive vision than we know here.

Perhaps it is in anticipation of that enlarged consciousness, already drawing to itself those who are near death, that our loved ones forgive us with grace and compassion. And if they don’t, if the occasion just doesn’t present itself, we can forgive ourselves on their behalf, confident that would have if they could. All is forgiven, all is forgiven, all is forgiven.

NOTE: I suggest shredding the letter and throwing it away after you have read it out loud. You may need to read it more than once before you sense completion. If you decide to keep it for a while, store it in a safe place. When contemplating whether to save or discard the letter, please consider this: The dead have no privacy. Do you want family members to find the letter after your death?


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How complicated and individual mending is,
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Mary Jane Moffat
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