I visited my 95-year old grandmother recently. She lives over 300 miles from me, so I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like. As we sat catching up, she mentioned that she had been having more and more thoughts about times earlier in life when, in her words, she did things that “were not very nice”. The example she gave me was when, as a frustrated young mother, she spanked my father out of anger during potty training that wasn’t going too smoothly. Recalling the memory brought her to tears.
Knowing my father was coming to stay with her in a few days, I suggested she apologize to him for it so that she can get it off her chest and give him the opportunity to forgive her. Perhaps it will allow her to let the bad memory and associated guilt go. She seemed to like the idea. But the more I think about our conversation, I’m wondering how someone can let go of guilt when the person they feel they’ve hurt is no longer here to apologize to?
The finality of death is a difficult reality to come to terms with, and it often comes suddenly and without warning. Many times there are no opportunities to even say our goodbyes, much less give us the chance to heal all our old wounds with that person.
Sometimes we lose someone we love (or once loved) who we’ve had a difficult relationship with – or are even estranged from – and we are left with the guilt that we didn’t do enough to “fix” the relationship when we had a chance. Guilt may be intermixed with anger, especially if we felt we were the ones who need an apology from them – which we’ll never receive.
Even if we lose someone we had a wonderful relationship with, the pain from losing them is bound to bring up some level of guilt that our relationship was not “perfect” and we didn’t do or say everything we should have. After all, hindsight is 20/20.
In my case, the guilt is that I didn’t do enough to prevent my four-year-old daughter’s drowning death. I have apologized to her more times than I can count. But without her here to say the words, “I forgive you Mama,” the apology never seems to be enough; at least not enough to let go of the lingering guilt and shame.
So what do we do? Do we just live with the guilt for the rest of our lives? Do we just accept it as something we can’t change, much like the pain of grief that never fully goes away? Or do we try to shift our thinking and change who it is we are apologizing to? Can we instead apologize to someone who is actually here to say, “I forgive you”?
The fact is, even if the person we lost were still here to accept our apology, we still need to forgive ourselves for the feelings of guilt to go away. In the case of my grandmother, even if my father accepts the apology – which, of course, he did – she will still need to forgive herself for a mistake she made almost 70 years ago in order to let the painful feeling go. The hope is that forgiveness from my dad will give her a sense of permission to forgive herself.
So rather than asking for forgiveness from the person we’ve lost – who we’ll never get a response from – perhaps we should be asking ourselves for forgiveness instead.
In my case, I need to come to terms with the fact that I am only human and make mistakes. Whether or not different choices or actions would have somehow kept my daughter alive…I’ll never know. I need to accept that my mistakes do not define me. Instead, I can use them as an opportunity to learn better decision-making skills and responses moving forward.
I am a work-in-progress, and will be for the rest of my life. Rather than asking my daughter for forgiveness, I need to ask it of myself. Will it be easy? No. But it will be the only way I will ever have a chance at letting go of my guilt and the shame associated with it.
My hope for my grandmother, myself, and everyone else who suffers the painful burden of guilt is that somehow we will find the strength to forgive our past mistakes and focus instead on how we can use the knowledge we’ve learned the hard way to make the best of the present.Tags: forgiveness, grief, guilt