The Healing Power of Forgiveness

When we suffer the death of someone we love, we experience mental, emotional and physical distress.  In this fragile state, it is likely that we will feel resentment, indignation or anger.  Sometimes these feelings may be the result of a perceived offense or difference with someone we know.  Even, perhaps, with our deceased loved one.

During the final stages of my husband’s illness and after his death, I remember being surprised at the support and kindness of many people.  Some, I hardly knew.  I was also surprised by the absence of support and/or inappropriate remarks made by family and friends.  One family member told me with great urgency that my children didn’t stand a chance.  Her claim was that children of single parents are “always problems and in trouble.”

Other comments, such as “It’s a blessing that his suffering is over,” seemed flippant.  Didn’t they know that any young father would gladly suffer in order to watch his children grow up!   Everyone who suffers a loss experiences similar situations.

When we think of forgiving others, it may seem an impossible task in our distressed state of mind.  We think, “I’m angry.  I’m hurt. I’m offended.  Why should I have to forgive?  I’m the injured party!”

It takes great effort and strength to forgive.  We are tired and emotionally spent.  It is easier to push grudges out of our consciousness or to nurture them into anger in order to focus our emotional energy.  The problem with avoiding forgiveness is that it is detrimental to our healing.

It has been my life experience that what goes around, comes around.  I know I have made countless blunders in my life—conscious and unconscious—and I always have the expectation of being forgiven.  So it is only right that I should forgive others.  But that doesn’t make the task any easier.

It may be surprising to learn that we can benefit greatly from forgiving others.  In fact, we benefit far more than those we forgive.  Studies show that people who forgive are happier and healthier than those who hold resentments.  This information is not new.  The ancient Buddhist religion views forgiveness as a practice to prevent harmful thoughts from causing havoc on one’s mental well-being.  Buddhism recognizes that feelings of ill-will leave a lasting effect on our mind “karma.”  And Judeo-Christian philosophy places great importance on forgiveness as a path to redemption.

Forgiveness is a vital step in the healing we need to recover from the loss of someone we love.  Lewis B. Smedes writes, “If you’ve been hurt, do you deserve to go on hurting?  Or do you deserve to be healed?”  So, the question of forgiveness is whether we and our future are worth it.  I think we are.  And this makes forgiving easier.

As we begin the process of forgiveness, we should be conscious of these common misconceptions:

Forgiveness will make us feel better right away. (In reality, making the decision to forgive will be only the beginning of a slow, but ultimately satisfying process.)

Forgiveness will only make the other person feel better. (The forgiven person often doesn’t even feel the need to be forgiven or know they have hurt you.)

In order to forgive, we must tell the other person. (As above, the forgiven person often doesn’t know or care to be forgiven.)

To forgive means to forget. (We may never forget the actions that we have forgiven.)

A clergyman once spoke about the difficulty of forgiveness by citing a personal example.   After being grievously wronged, he felt the urge to run his car over the perpetrator.  As he worked to find forgiveness, he imagined lightly braking, then braking completely and even stopping and waving.  As he reached true forgiveness, he could imagine stopping and even offering the person a ride.

While this example might be comical, it illustrates how we must work on the process of letting go of our anger.  Forgiveness is a process.  It does not happen instantaneously.  It is a journey of the heart.

We must internalize these truths as we deal with forgiveness:

Forgiveness involves the mind, emotion and will.

Forgiveness requires a conscious conviction of need to forgive for our own benefit.

Forgiveness attempts to understand the other person.

We must desire to forgive.

We must choose to forgive.

If we keep in mind that it is ourselves who will reap the greatest rewards of forgiveness, we can find the strength to take these steps.  And these steps will move us forward on our journey of healing.

Mary Zemites

More Articles Written by Mary

Mary Zemites faced the loss of her husband, Greg Jarczyk, in 1992. Left with three young children, ages 4 to 10, she immediately returned to school at Arizona State University to finish a Masters degree in 1993. She then went back to work while caring for her family. Two years after her husband's death, Mary's young nephew, Sammy, was lost to cancer. After suffering through and surviving her own loss, Mary was able to support her grieving sister in a way that others could not. This experience inspired her to begin a new journey of helping the bereaved. And for ten years, Mary has been a bereavement group facilitator at her church. Mary knows the pain of loss...but she also knows the value of support and friendship through that loss. As owner of InTimeOfSorrow.com she provides all of us with a way to reach out to those who are "walking through the valley of darkness" and help them ease back into the light of hope. Mary resides in Chandler, Arizona with her husband, Tom Zemites. She and Tom share five children and two granddaughters. Reach Mary through her website, http://www.intimeofsorrow.com, or by e-mail, maryz@intimeofsorrow.com.

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  • Shirley D. says:

    Dear Mary,
    I am so sorry for the loss of your husband. While reading your article, I found myself nodding in agreement about the different things people say to us when we lose a loved one. My sister was taken from us in September of 2009. She was murdered, in her home, by most likely someone she knew. Of course, the shock and denial were overwhelming to all of us, including her friends and co workers and the 5th grade students she taught. I remember a few things that were said to me during her visitation and funeral. Things that hurt. I was able to forgive for the mere fact most everyone there was in shock and had no idea of what to say. I didn’t know what to say. In a traumatic loss like ours, everyone wants to comfort each other and often say things they think they are supposed to say or things they have always said. I know none of these people were intentionally trying to hurt me or my family so forgiveness came easy.
    Unfortunately, no arrests have been made in her murder yet. Six months later, we still don’t know who. I know knowing who won’t bring her back. I know there will never be a ‘why’ that justifies her death to any or us. Those questions are still there though.
    I have had a few thoughts of forgiveness of this crimininal and I honestly have to say right now, there is no way I can even entertain the idea of forgiving her murderer. One day maybe? I don’t know. I know it’s only been six months, I don’t really have the energy or the room in my heart and mind to think about forgiving this unknown person.
    Your article did help though. Perhaps somewhere down the road I too can find the strength and courage it will take for me to forgive. That is yet to be seen.
    Thank you for your article and again I’m sorry for you loss.
    shirley

  • Paul Bennett says:

    Mary,

    What you say about forgiveness points to profound truths about grief and, even more fundamentally, about our relationship with the past. Reading about such truths can take us only so far; the benefit of releasing our grip on the past is one of the there truths that we simply need to experience for ourselves. When we can release the resentment we are holding agains others by forgiving them, we can also begin releasing the blame we are holding against ourselves in the form of regret or remorse. Who among us has lost a spouse and doesn’t have something we wish were different — something we should or shouldn’t have said or done? When we can forgive ourselves and others, we can begin to look at our beloved’s whole life with gratitude.

    Among the resources for people who can’t forgive are Jacqui Bishop and Mry Grunte’s book, “How to Forgive When You Don’t Know How”, (available on Amazon) and the remarkably powerful technique called “The Sedona Method.” (information and free resources at http://www.sedona.com.

    Thank you for pointing out that forgiving others is truly a gift to ourselves.

    Paul Bennett
    http://www.lovinggrief.com