Grieving and Forgiving

Teresa Pitt Green, Co-Founder *

Forgiveness. A neuralgic concept in the Church right now. Weren’t abusers enabled by forgiveness? Yes. They were. Didn’t leaders forgive each other without accountability? Yes. It seems they did.

Should survivors (and everybody else who is upset and enraged by yet another wave of abuse scandals) “just get over it”? No. That old cliche has been retired in my life anyway.

These scenarios are not really about forgiveness. They are about enabling, complicity, grave error, expediency, yes. They are not about forgiveness.

Forgiveness, real forgiveness, remains a worthy topic with very real implications for your health and well-being. So, it’s worth a reflection today.

Not ready to forgive today? That makes today the perfect day to read this article.

Forgiveness is an expansive topic. Just a few facets of the gem are considered here. No action required.

Let’s make sure this reflection is kept at arm’s length from the pain of our past. For the sake of discussion, let’s find something similarly impossible to forgive, like killing someone.

We can ask if any of us can really forgive the driver who perished along with a loved one in a car crash which the driver caused. Can anyone forgive the murderer who killed a family and escaped without arrest or prosecution? Forgive a loved one who has died by their own hand? Or by addiction? People grieve such things every day. No personal resolution is possible with those involved. Survivors are left without the possibility of a face-to-face exchange in person or by the written word. So, is forgiveness even possible?

Can we forgive someone without a conversation?

Karen Kohler Kaiser wrote, in her book Frozen Grief: A Sister’s Story of Grieving Sudden Loss, about her grief after several loved ones disappeared, as missing persons.

Kohler Kaiser described her life from the moment she realized these loved ones had simply vanished, and she described how she became frozen in her grief. She was careful to distinguish grief from shock. Grief lasted. Her life stopped. She felt paralyzed. Kohler Kaiser was also struggling with a seemingly silent God in a desolation very much like a polar night.

For her, healing played out in a process where, as she was wrestling with God, she unexpectedly came to understand God at a new level, on His terms. Her faith grew. Her relationship with God strengthened. Without full resolution in the terrible disappearance, grief began to melt and it became possible to move forward. As a Christian, Kohler Kaiser is writing about a different framework for forgiveness so she could regain her life, or, more exactly, find new life.

That idea of forgiveness is very much in line with the research of Dr. Fred Luskin, who approaches forgiveness from a physiological angle. Whereas Kohler Kaiser approaches this pivotal moment of letting go as a Christian, Luskin’s compelling argument to forgive is based on health in human terms. It is rational. It is research-based.

The Healing Voices Magazine has already covered the Stanford Forgiveness Project, founded on research conducted by Dr. Fred Luskin. His conclusions about forgiveness can be very challenging according to many members of his workshops and audiences, but he is not a mere observer of grief and loss. Before beginning his research, he had lost his young daughter in a car crash and his wife soon after to illness at an early age.

Luskin has spent his life describing the mechanics, if you will, of forgiveness. One of these logistics, he claims, is that forgiveness didn’t require him to talk to the drunk driver whose car killed his daughter, any more than he could speak to the illness that took his wife. He was, however, angry at both. And, to survive the losses, he felt compelled to forgive both.

Luskin’s experience and research demonstrate that forgiveness doesn’t need to include a person on the other side of a dialogue or encounter in order to forgive. The impact of forgiveness is not lessened when no one hears. Or knows. What is important is knowing the distinction Luskin makes between forgiveness (as an individual state of mind) and reconciliation (between two or more people or parties, such as a survivor and the Church).

It seems so easy. But is it that simple?

If we can speak forgiveness into an empty room to feel better, why is it so hard to forgive?

“Forgiveness seems to be a place where people get stuck,” says Dr. Gloria Horsley, who is a grief specialist and has published a series known as the Open to Hope guidebooks for forgiving and other books, e.g., Real Men Do Cry. Luskin and Horsley describe different ways people’s anger is part of grief itself.

Luskin and Horsley, who are colleagues in the healing work around grief, describe how people get angry at the person who was drinking and driving (which led to killing their loved one). People often get angry doctors or hospice care related to the death of a loved one. These are natural, normal responses. Anger is part of grief.

However, Horsley warns that grief, if unattended, can fester, and its symptoms persist. Anger persists. Depression persists. Illnesses related to suppressed immunity persist. To be free of symptoms, people need to move through grief. Releasing anger, we also release grief. Releasing anger or grief, people in Luskin’s programs reported lessening or releasing depression, reduced stress and relief or cure from illnesses or symptoms.

It was on this pivotal step that much of the research behind the Stanford Forgiveness Project was based. Talking about how illness often follows suffering a terrible wrong, Luskin points to how people feel anger long after the wrong is done. The problem isn’t that anger is bad, per se. It is not that grieving takes time. The problem is when we get stuck in the grief or the anger. The problem, in his theory, is when we can’t forgive we can’t move forward free from grief.

Horsley, Luskin and Kohler Kaiser return to the same theme: grief, with its anger and other symptoms, can end up holding many people back from living a free and full life, from thriving relationships, from a healthy body and mind.

How does a survivor unlock this enigma?

Anger after abuse is justified. In fact, it is critical to healing from abuse. So, at what point does the moral outrage become a symptom of festering grief?

Grieving after abuse is essential. Grieving takes time. How can we figure out if we’re stuck or just practicing patience with our own healing?

“It’s common for people to still talk about people who wronged them decades later,” Luskin says, who understands his idea of forgiveness often challenges audiences. For this he draws on his years of pushing people to forgive in events he offers for those seeking solutions for physical and emotional illnesses.

Luskin, along with Horsley, is emphatic in this regard. There is a reason we stop progressing. Facing that reason, monitoring that fear, helps us know when grieving is an experience – or a dodge.

What is the reason these authors offer for why any of us would hold onto the grief after it loosens its grip on us. “It becomes easier to … hold on tight to pain ….” than to accept the end of something.

What that means for people whose loved ones died is that death leaves a void. It ends more than a life, but also many related living things like relationships, dreams, even families.

For adults who were abused as children, it means that childhood died. Other things died. Other wounds happened, but it seems many of us agree that what is lost never to be retrieved is the childhood we had and the person who might have emerged from that. In some sense, we died.

What fool would want to hold onto pain such terrible wounds?

The idea might seem preposterous, at first.

Horsley and Luskin and Kohler Kaiser write, in different ways, about how anger and grief fill us. They talk about the emptiness created by terrible loss. Such a void is overwhelming. Letting the pain or grief or rage fill that void can be the lesser of two impossible options.

The authors reassure us how grieving moves through the emptiness, even integrates it into ourselves. They remind us we do not need to get stuck in the darkness or fill the void with grief and anger overstaying their purpose. There is hope that we can live in a new peace with the past, no longer at odds with the reality of our lives.

Think of a cup.

Death can leave our lives gutted. It can leave us empty. It can leave a void. Our lives can feel empty. Our hearts can feel hollowed out. We are the empty cup.

We grieve, full of emotions like anger, sorrow, and denial. They fill the emptiness. But, like all human things, they ebb after they flood. They subside. As they do, the emptiness gains dominance. This is a decision point, whether conscious or not.

Will we hold out an empty cup and trust God, Who may have seemed so silent to us in our grief, to fill it with new blessings, new experiences, new possibilities?

Or, will we hold onto the pain and grief rather than face the emptiness? If our cup is full of frozen grief and emotions, it can accept nothing of the new life possible by stepping forward in faith and in trust, choosing God as the way forward.

That choice is for each of us to make.

For children and vulnerable persons, the decision is made without benefit of support or guidance or acknowledgement. It was a terrible time. How can we relate that experience to others? Or can we? Only later, in therapy, is the decision point revisited and the process reset on a conscious basis. Still, there are really only two alternatives.

Know-how follows the choice. The choice for health demands we trust that the battered cup we extend will not return empty. We trust ourselves to step out of the boat into roiling waters. We trust God will hold us above the waves.

Adults who find themselves compelled to return to the past and face childhood abuse they thought they had, with the many complicit adults, buried once and for all face this choice now. It is a way to resolve the past and move forward into a thriving life that integrates the memories and permits some level of renewal and new life.

It’s a process. A terrible process. It is demanding. Even the idea of forgiveness is demanding. But, for today, that is all it is. An idea. To consider and then put down for another day, to consider again.

Don’t rush!

There’s no hurry.

Accepting your pace forward in healing is part of healing!

These ideas about grief simply help shed light on how, beginning therapy for child abuse after we are adults can be an emotional shock. Why? The feelings that froze in grief years ago must now be released as we thaw.

If we stay frozen in the grief, our current adult lives suffer. If we thaw we can really become more present to our lives, to those whom we love, to dreams we pursue. Yet, it cannot be done without releasing child- or teen-sized emotions. The process is worthwhile, but feeling our way through can be brutal.

These authors’ ideas also shed light on ways we can manage our feelings and thoughts even before we come to a point of interest in or willingness to forgive. How? By minimizing their physiological impact now.

Luskin urges people to forgive using research that showed how brains are physiologically wired so that, if you repeat the same thoughts or feelings about how terrible something is or how angry you are, the brain creates deeper and deeper, stronger and stronger pathways that are, later, hard to escape.

His idea can inspire us to learn to distinguish between when thoughts and feelings need our focus to be processed and when they start to work like habits, filling up spaces we are avoiding or simply don’t value.

Like any habit, these “mind habits” or “heart habits” start out with little real effect. They can even be helpful. But what begin as webs often become cables. They become a new and additional burden, keeping you frozen when you are ready to move forward without the constraints of the past in a happier, freer, well adult life.

Today maybe you can’t forgive. That’s okay.

But, anticipating the day when forgiveness will free you without absolving your abuser(s), today might just be the perfect day to start finding ways to distract yourself from focusing on the wrong over and over.

Take a walk.

Listen to music.

Find a hobby.

Wave at God.

Consider it an investment in your health and well-being.

Inspiration from the work of Fred Luskin, with excerpts from “The Importance of Forgiveness in Grief,” website accessed September 2, 2018, in Finding Hope After Loss. If you have a story about how you found ways to forgive, please share them with us. 

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