Geez, I’m starting to feel like I’m preaching about this! For the record, I am not the wise woman you think I am. I’ve just gotten good at observing the journey, and sharing what I’ve learned along the way.
Yesterday’s post shared my latest insight on forgiveness, and anger, thanks to an article I read a few days ago. Today, I’m sharing an exercise that helped me–and a lot of people in our grief writing class–get over a major bump in life. (Like, a big rock in the middle of the road kind of bump.)
In hospice, there were certain deaths that were especially hard to deal with, and they weren’t the ones you’d expect. Yes, losing someone we’ve had a beautiful relationship is hard, hard, hard, no matter how gentle or peaceful their leaving.
But there are other deaths we call “complicated”. Perhaps it was a terrible bit of fate: An accident that yanked them out of lives suddently, horribly. Perhaps a suicide, where we are nearly destroyed by our helplessness to change anything. Maybe they were murdered. (This was my first person to write about, because their murder haunted me for decades.) Perhaps the person was struggling with addiction, with all the incumbent behaviors associated with that. Perhaps the person had mental health issues. Or perhaps they were abusive, or narcissistic, or simply toxic, or a sociopath, which feels more like a choice and hurts even more.
They have moved on. But sometimes we can’t.
In our grief writing workshop created through the agency I volunteered with, we dealt with people who were suffering from grief long past the “normal” length of time. (Although in our society, our “normal” is extremely short by any standard.) For many reasons, people could not feel the pain soften enough to take up their “normal” lives again. And because I’m a writer, I geared the class towards people who process life’s puzzles and muddy places through writing themselves.
I put together together various writing activities to use throughout the six-week sessions. But the most powerful one, originally my idea but modified to an even more powerful excercise by my supervisor, we saved for the next-to-last session.
It broke me very single time.
Imagine the person whose death is haunting you, crushing you. Imagine them now, whatever your own religious/spiritual beliefs (or non-belief) are. Imagine them in a different place in the universe, one where they are fully healed and restored to the best possible version of themselves they could be.
Now write a letter, from them, to you.
Every single class struggled with this concept.
“We write a letter to them.”
“No, imagine the letter they would write to YOU.”
“But…they would never do that!” (or “Wha……??!!)
Again, imagine. Imagine they are now a whole, healed, healthy, redeemed entity, somewhere. They are aware of their actions, they are everything you could have wanted them to be, here.
What would they say to you?
Now write that down!
Everyone would struggle with this concept. They hesitated to write. They would write a few words, frown, heave a sigh, look out the window. “Just write,” I’d say. “Just keep writing.”
So they did.
And then the words, and the tears, poured out.
People sat and scribbled for a long, long time. They cried. We cried. I still cry, just thinking about it.
I’d wait until everyone was done. No timer on this one!
And then, we offered them the chance to share, or not share, what they’d written.
Everyone wanted to share.
It was heart-breakingly beautiful. And it worked.
What they’d written was exactly what they wanted, and desperately needed to hear.
It was a tangible exercise in forgiveness. No excuses, no false apologies, probably something that would never ever happen in “real time”, in “real life.” It helped us understand that the person either could not choose, or chose not to be this “whole, healed person” in real life.
Like I learned and shared in yesterday’s post, we cannot change other people. We cannot change the past. We cannot control the future. We cannot control our feelings, only our actions.
This action broke our hearts wide open, knowing, feeling this, deeply.
It let us finally disengage from the pain, accept what it is, and let go.
It helped us imagine what that release, that act of forgiveness, could have looked like, and put it into action, now.
When I ran this class, I ran out of people to write about. Some co-workers (co-volunteers??) had the same problem. And one session, we realized we had all chosen pets to write about! One person imagined so deeply, her beloved dog had “written” “Dear Mom”. I magined my beautiful cat Gomez addressed me as “Kind Lady”, because he knew I wasn’t his mom, but he knew I loved him.
Even as I write this, I realize it’s time to do this again. It’s time to write those letters. There’s been a lot of loss in our little family lately. Time to take my own advice, and take that next healing step.
P.S. If you would like to try this writing exercise, but are a little unsure about it, do it with a good friend or two. Someone who loves you in all the right ways, all the best ways. Maybe you can both do it, together, and share your stories. For some reason, a witness is powerful magic.
And I promise to write about something cheerful next time!