ANOTHER EXERCISE IN FORGIVENESS

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.

The premise:

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!

 

ANGRY GIRL

Forgiveness is an act of commitment.

Forgiveness is psychological, not moral.

I’ve just discovered this incredible blog by Nick Wignall. It has already given me clarity on some of my “life issues”, good lessons in this confusing yet beautiful school of life.

The most recent one I’ve read is about anger, and consequently, forgiveness, both tricky issues to deal with even as an adult. This article wrapped up a lot of confusing emotions and tied ’em up with a beautiful bow. The following is a summary of what struck me hard, but be sure to check out the article as written, too. Because something different might resonate for YOU.

Last year, both of my parents died about 7 months apart, and I made four separate flights back home. One each to say goodbye, and one for their respective memorial services.

I had already done a lot of work surrounding forgiveness. Long story short, there were many times where I was not protected as a young person, and I suffered from not only the damage done to me, but also suffered from the lack of compassion from those who could have done better. There were also times where I was kicked out of the family because I was so vile and despicable. I had to come crawling back, not sure what I had done nor why it had been met with such an extreme response.  And, like so many families, we were never–NEVER–supposed to talk about it, ever.

When a number of years ago, I realized my mother was now living with dementia, I knew I would never hear the words I was so desperate to hear. My work as a hospice volunteer taught me so much.  How to sit with a client who is nearing the end of their journey. To understand the difference between “fixing/curing” and healing.

I realized she could no longer be my mother. But I could still be her daughter. I saw her as a person who deserved my kindness, and compassion, and that helped me deal with both losses without losing my mind.

It also planted the seeds of forgiveness. It took time for me to really understand what true forgiveness is, but it started there.

I was still living with anger, though. Many members of our family had different experiences, due to our ages and…er…experiences. It felt like a contest for ages: Whose version was “right”, and whose was “wrong”.  How do we forgive people who are so sure we are doing it wrong? Especially when they never inquire what our own experience was like? Especially when we DID share those experiences, but remember them differently? Where is the truth when all we have is our own perception to rely on?

Nick covers forgiveness in the same way I finally reached it. Forgiveness does not mean “forgetting what happened” (because it is impossible to forget the pain). And it doesn’t mean the perpetrators are “off the hook”, and you have welcome them wholeheartedly back into your life. It doesn’t mean there has to be reconciliation–we are free to choose to protect ourselves, and we don’t have to accept “excuses” that are often at our expense. (For the record, “I’m sorry you got so upset” is not an apology.)

It’s about recognizing that other people are not under our control. We can only control ourselves, and there’s even a limit to that.

That’s where the anger issue came into play, and I love how he framed it.

Again, lots of quote and part paraphrasing:

Anger is a “positive” emotional feeling–we feel that we’re right and they are wrong. But it’s really an anti-depressant with potentially nasty side effects, and the consequences are often negative. LOVE THIS!

Anger helps eliminate sadness, boredom, feeling helpless, etc. It’s a crutch that makes us passive. It creates “opportunity cost”: Sucking up time and energy we could devote to learning better behaviors. It also reinforces our deep memories of the wrongs done to us. (Yup!)

The right approach, according to Nick, is to validate that anger. But don’t feed it. 

The way there is acceptance–not for that person’s actions/inaction, but to acknowledge and accept we cannot change the past.

Thinking we can change the past helps us feel more in control, but it’s an illusion.

As I read this, I began to understand where my own residual anger comes from:

I hate it when other people diminish my pain. “Oh, that’s not what they meant, get over it!” “I don’t remember it that way, so that means you’re remembering it wrong.” When compatriots agree with me “in theory” but still defend “the group”.

And the reason I ghost them, I now realize, is because it feels like the only thing I can control. I can avoid any further interactions, and avoid the snark, the disbelief, the snide comments, or subtle “betrayal” of not standing with you even though they know exactly what it was like for you

So I’m still learning about forgiveness, and I’m beginning to distrust my anger, especially as it often serves only to feed the flame, or grow the sadness.

The last take-away from this article is, forgiveness is not ONE decision. We have to get there over and over again until the process gets “learned”. And it won’t “feel good” in and of itself. Because not only can we not control other people, we can’t control how we feel. Feelings are part of us, forever.

We may be able to soften the feeling. (The common phrase in a grief support group I attended was about how grief never disappears, but it does “gets softer” as time passed.) But it will always be there. Feelings are us. (Apologies to Toys R Us….)

All we can control is our actions.

This was exactly what I needed to hear.

For years now, I’ve written about the power of our choices. 

We all have a lizard brain (aka “monkey mind”, “reptilian brain”, etc.) But when we learned to recognize those instinctive responses (anger?) to perceived danger (a rude customer, a snide family member), we can choose how we respond. We can choose “better”.

I am grateful that I found the way to continue the work of true forgiveness. I am grateful to find a better understanding of how my anger does not serve me, but I can never make it go away. I can choose to truly understand that in the short run, righteous indignation feels really good, but does not serve me in the long run.

And whether I have decades yet to live, or only a few hours, this is who I want to be.

This is who I can choose to be in the world.