During my career as an addiction professional, I worked with many individuals who had trouble forgiving what they perceived to be injustices done to them by their families, close friends, or peer groups. Frankly, there are certain actions that are impossible for others to forgive.
Being able to forgive is viewed as key to “letting go” of resentments and anger. However, if we accept the fact that at times, we are incapable of forgiving others, is that act of acceptance another way to “let go” of those resentments? Understanding our limitations while acknowledging that we are human, is another way that we can achieve peace and clarity while walking our own unique life path.
However, forgiveness does not just involve exonerating others. It is much more complex than that.
The Wisdom of Ghost Rider
The late Neil Peart, best known as the lyricist and brilliant drummer for the Canadian rock band Rush, wrote a book titled Ghost Rider: Travels On The Healing Road, following the deaths of his daughter Selena and common law wife Jackie in 1997 and 1998 respectively. Ghost Rider describes Peart’s 14 month road trip on his motorcycle, so that he could discover a reason to live, in the aftermath of his life altering losses. I first read Ghost Rider in 2010. His reflections about loss resonated deeply with me, and still do today. I often refer to his book in my undergraduate Death, Dying and Bereavement classes and recommend it as a resource for my students.
Peart’s profound observations about forgiveness inspired me to reflect on the role it played in my transformation of self, following the death of my 18 year old daughter Jeannine in March of 2003:
“There would be no peace for me, no life for me, until I learned to forgive life for what it had done to me , forgive others for still being alive, and eventually forgive myself for being alive.”
During my own challenges with forgiveness after Jeannine’s death, I struggled with forgiving others for being alive as well as myself. I never thought about exonerating life for the hand of cards that I was dealt.
My inability to forgive myself for several years after Jeannine’s death was due in part, to my perceived role of needing to be the father protector. Jeannine died of an incurable and rare form of cancer. Though her disease was beyond my control, my inability to think clearly during early grief convinced me that I should have seen the signs of her cancer earlier. I may have also become tethered to the notion that forgiving myself would mean that I would stop remembering my daughter. In some strange way then, the inability to forgive myself kept me tied to memories of my daughter and the life that I had with her.
I now understand that I couldn’t have done anything to prevent Jeannine’s illness and death. I eventually came to terms with my guilt for being alive in a world where Jeannine wasn’t, by creating and maintaining a continued spiritual bond with her. In doing so, I was truly able to forgive myself for being alive.
I also decided to examine forgiveness using the remaining two parts of Neil Peart’s definition. In each category, I have listed one thing that I have chosen to forgive as well as the process that I went through to achieve peace:
Forgive Life for What it Had Done to Me
Life took my father away from me at age 5; I was raised as an only child.
My father left me and my mother Sadie, without warning, never to be seen or heard from again. For many years, I was angry because I grew up without him. At the age of 57, I finally understood that my father’s act of abandonment was an act of love. He left because he could not thrive in a traditional marriage. If he stayed it would only have resulted in more unnecessary pain for me and my mother.
In order to forgive life for taking my father from me, I needed to, among other things, embrace the teachings of crow who encourages us to “shape shift that old reality and become your future self.” Crow’s wisdom helped me fully achieve peace with my father’s decision to leave.
Forgive Others for Being Alive
There were a number of times during early grief, that I asked why others of questionable character continued to exist on earth, while Jeannine’s life was cut short.
The process of comparing the worthiness of others to my daughter was a product of the emotional pain that I experienced. Through the influence of a couple of wise spiritual mentors and the work of Debbie Ford, I discovered that everyone we judge to be less than worthy than our deceased loved ones are in service to us, even if it is just to remind us that their path is not the path we would choose for ourselves.
Some Random Closing Thoughts
• Neil Peart forged his path to forgiveness after loss through motion, communing with nature and deep introspection. Some may forge their path through creative means such as painting, collage or poetry. Others may utilize mindfulness and/or meditation. The tools used on the path to forgiveness are tailored to the capabilities of those who travel it.
• Over the years, I have witnessed several stories of parents whose children died by suicide or complications from addiction, both stigmatized losses. Many in society need to keep in mind that a young adult’s life should not be judged by what they did or how they died, but by whose lives they touched when they were alive.
• As parents who have experienced the death of a child, we need to be gentle with ourselves for not being able to prevent what we truly could not foresee.
“Be kind to past versions of yourself, that didn’t know the things you now know.”