Coping with Grief: Why Forgiveness Matters So Much

ContemplativeDeath is a subject that is generally off-limits in our society. We spend much of our time denying its existence and its inexorable approach, even though we all realize that we will die “some day.” For the most part, however, we try to convince ourselves that the day is far away and we operate from the premise that we are invincible—until the wheel of fate rolls around to show us just how vulnerable we really are.

We imagine that our loved ones will always be there for us, and often fail to take the time to let them know just how much we really care about them. This fact was recently driven home to me when a very dear friend finally lost the battle he’d been waging against cancer for the past year. Although I called and visited him regularly, I struggled with watching him age before my eyes and melt down to a frail, skeletal version of his once-healthy self. He unfortunately passed away before I really had a chance to say goodbye and tell him how much he’d meant to me.

During challenging moments such as these, we realize just how precious and fleeting our lives really are. We tend to take for granted many of the factors that contribute to our happiness, such as our health, our homes, and our families and friends. In the blink of an eye, our worlds can come crashing down as we come to realize just how weak and defenseless we are against the casualties of time.

In addition, we frequently feel as though we cannot communicate our pain to others, as the grieving process is not truly honored in our society. After a short amount of time, we are expected to pick ourselves up and carry on with our lives as though nothing had happened. As death is such a taboo subject, others often feel awkward talking to us about our loss, which can leave us feeling cut off from our friends and acquaintances and alone with our suffering.

In other cultures around the world, they have special ceremonies and rituals designed to celebrate the ancestors who have gone before them. They keep them alive in their hearts and souls by dedicating holidays to remember them by. They share stories about the loved ones they have lost, honoring their lives and rejoicing in their passing on to a higher plane. These rituals can be of genuine help in assisting the families and individuals left behind to come to terms with death.

When a loved one dies, we mourn the loss of his or her companionship and presence in our lives, and feel bereft by the void that is left behind. We often regret not having shared with them our deepest feelings or having allowed ourselves to be more open and vulnerable with them. In some cases, we may also be left with unresolved issues if we have not come to terms with our underlying emotions, such as anger or resentment, toward the person who died.

These feelings can continue to haunt us long after the individual’s death, making it difficult in some cases to get on with our lives. This was the case for one of the persons I worked with, a person who harbored considerable hatred toward his father for the abuse that he had suffered at his hands. He grew up feeling unwanted and unlovable and thought that he was somehow to blame for his father’s abusive nature. He was consumed by bitterness for many years after his father’s death, which prevented him from being able to enjoy his life despite having a loving wife and a beautiful home.

His inner world was an ongoing nightmare until he started to gain a new perspective during the therapeutic process by realizing that he had not been to blame for his father’s abusive nature and that he had ended up internalizing many of the same dynamics himself. He came to see that his father probably had his own inner demons to contend with and had unfortunately just been repeating the cycle that likely had been going on for generations in his family.

As his compassion grew, he started to open up his heart to forgiveness. This played a huge role in his ability to heal and let go of the hatred that he had held onto for so long. Paying a visit to his father’s grave was the final ritual that allowed him to let go of his past and to start to move forward again in his life, with a newfound sense of compassion for his own human imperfections as well as those of his father.

Although we have not all grown up in abusive environments, we can all relate to this story on some level, as we have a tendency to carry some anger and hatred toward others regarding unresolved past wounds. These feelings of bitterness prevent us from being able to fully inhabit the present moment, as we ruminate on the pain that we’ve experienced and continually perpetuate our suffering. However, we can never find peace or joy in our lives as long as we are holding onto grudges for past wrongdoings. The resentment we feel ultimately hurts us much more than the person who initially caused us harm. And if the individual we hold a grudge against has died, this can compound our problem, as we tend to internalize this anger, thereby hurting ourselves even more.

Our psychological health therefore depends on our ability to forgive others. But we also have an even greater need to forgive ourselves for our own past transgressions and learn from them the lessons that we were intended to learn in order to move beyond them. Constantly beating ourselves up for something we have done in the past will not change what happened, but it will affect our ability to be happy and to truly love and accept ourselves now.

We are all human beings with imperfections and failings that we can learn from. As we open our hearts and begin to forgive and accept the aspects of ourselves that we have previously judged and rejected, we become more compassionate and loving toward ourselves as well as others. We learn to truly live our lives fully, rather than just surviving or waiting for a misfortune to hit us. We experience grief and pain, but we also become able to love with all our hearts. We start to drink deeply from the well of compassion that nourishes all who draw near and connects us on a deep level—the level of our own humanity.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Wendy Salazar, MFT, therapist in San Diego, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sarah

    May 23rd, 2014 at 10:02 AM

    Several years ago when I found out that my mom was dying I was so sad because she and I had never had the kind of relationship with each other that I always wanted but knew that she had been unable to give me. She was a heavy drinker, I guess you say an alcoholic and for her that was what everything revolved around, getting the next drink, not her kids and family so I resented her mightily for that. But then when I knew that she wouldn’t be here that much longer I wanted to make things right because I knew that if I didn’t now then I would never have that chance once she was gone. I am not going to lie and say we resolved everything because that was a lot of years of built up anger that we both had to acknowledge but I am glad that we got to talk about the big stuff and resolve that and forgive before we didn’t have each other anymore.

  • Lucy

    March 28th, 2017 at 6:52 AM

    So glad you were able to address some of the things that you needed to with your mum xx

  • Ariel Gail MacLean

    May 23rd, 2014 at 12:41 PM

    as a 67 year old dating single female, I would like to also comment on the significance of working through one’s self-forgiveness issues because of it’s impact in re-partnering. I have met and gotten to know a steady stream of elder widowers, including those many years as a single, and almost universally, they are stuck in terms of their capacity to form a new healthy love partnership because they are still “in love” with their former spouse. Often they have unallowed resentment because she abandoned him. Or they realize belatedly that they could not support her dying emotions and effectively needed more than she did because their woman had a lifetime of being his only real means of feeling his feelings – older males often use their female as the method of getting in touch with their emotional self and now this capacity is taken away. So many men just do not even conceptualize the grieving process for what it is; even a book on grieving, which intellectually describes theoretical stages, could prove helpful, but men do not have the history of self-directed self-education and personal responsibility for their own personal growth and healing. Perhaps this sounds critical of my male peers. Actually, the ones who are left are the best and brightest, who gave so much this last half-century and who are dying off in record numbers right now, often single and do not want to be. We have the highest percentage of older single boomers in the history of our generation right now. It starts so often, by engaging one’s Self and facing head on, our PTSD-complicated grief issues. This approach is the only one which can produce the capacity to repartner again in a healthy way.

  • Ruby Tollison

    May 24th, 2014 at 5:57 AM

    I truly believe that without allowing forgiveness into your life you are setting yourself up for a lifetime of even more pain. You have to be able to forgive what has happened to you in the past in order to move forward in life. You can’t continue to hang onto what has happened before- what good could that possibly do? Especially when you have lost someone in your life who is important to you. Thye may have wronged you before, but wouldn’t it feel better to simply let all of that go and live with the good memories that you have of them and not the bad?

  • Jake

    May 26th, 2014 at 4:51 AM

    It will be difficult to lose someone who is important to you no matter when it is, no matter how. Think about how much harder that will be if you have never forgiven them for some infraction or have never had the chance to tell them that you loved them one last time. It might not be what you want to do, but it would never be the wrong thing to do.

  • Savannah T

    May 27th, 2014 at 4:03 AM

    If you lose someone in your life and they pass away while the two of you have unresolved issues, then guess what? You will always think of this person as being lost to you, yet still with those issues that the two of you had which can now never be resolved and worked out. Isn’t it better to have an attitude of forgiveness now while they are still here so that you can work out all of your issues and troubles? I would much rather compromise a bit now and hopefully reach some sort of resolution than for this person to be gone and never fully be able to tell them how much I love them without all of the negativity still between us.

  • jon

    May 28th, 2014 at 3:54 AM

    forgiveness always feels better than hoding onto the hate, spoken from experience

  • Julia

    May 29th, 2014 at 2:15 PM

    Forgiveness is hard, that’s why we often fight ourselves when we know it is the right thing to do, but still deep inside we don’t want to do it. But why? You have to think about why you are not willing to forgive someone and what good it will do you later in life to hold onto that pain. You can never get past what this person has done to you unless you make the serious choice to really let go and forgive them. If you don’t then this will continue to permeate the rest of your life and create negative energy when really this is not a good thing to do for yourself or for anyone that you live with. Make peace and let it go. It will be like lifting a ton of bricks off of you and you will feel a peace that you may not have known for a very long time.

  • Kathleen

    May 29th, 2014 at 10:44 PM

    I think I have spent my life feeling hurt over issues that have occurred. Recent deaths, my only sister included, have really destroyed the balance of family in my life. I don’t think anyone who has hurt me feels that they want to be forgiven. Seems like I am the common denominator of the problems at hand. Question is where to turn for advice. Not everyone wants to be confronted with “being forgiven” for dome thing they had no part in. Feels like falls on my shoulders. I can be brave but what if this is not the case?t

  • Doris

    October 30th, 2014 at 9:24 AM

    Hi,
    I have a question about the grief process..

  • Wendy Salazar

    Wendy Salazar

    October 31st, 2014 at 8:54 AM

    Hi Doris,
    What is your question? You didn’t post it with your comment.
    Best regards,
    Wendy Salazar

  • paulette

    November 23rd, 2014 at 4:37 PM

    my best friend lost her husband to cancer 4 years ago at which time her twin brother passed away from a brain tumor a few weeks prior so she was not able to attend his services and then her dad passed after a few months. She is still grieving and having issues with anxiety and TMJ. I don’t know what to do to help her?

  • Jackie Johnson

    July 30th, 2015 at 5:37 AM

    Thank you for sharing this post with me and my family and friends. I was very helpful in my seeing what and how I can finally let go of any resentments, pain, hurts, disappointments, and guilt or shame. This post caused to look at death a bit differently through it’s discussion about self forgiveness and forgiveness of others as well, I already understood my needing to forgive other’s, however it was easy to leave myself out of the process of healing.
    So, again, thank you for sharing this post.

  • Shelley

    July 31st, 2015 at 10:16 AM

    I really needed this at the very moment it was sent. Thank you.

  • stephanie

    August 1st, 2015 at 4:06 AM

    I don’t know how to let go of someone I loved for 10 years who was an addict and untimely was murdered. Could I have went and got him for the hundredth time and let history repeat it’s self as it has done so many times. The trial of the girl who killed him has yet to pass. People hurt me I can’t talk about it he was cremated so there’s no place to go to let it out. I still defend him today just like I always have and I’m loosing family in the process no one wants to hear it no one wants me to have closure. I’m a black or white person there is no grey with me. We said our finally good bye on my birthday last year my life has never been so shut down full of rage and disappointment. Everyone asked why I put up with it for 10 years I would always say I can’t handle the door knock or phone call telling me he is dead. On December 15 of 2014 a investigator called and opened my greatest fear. My life changed and I continue to fight to save my self from myself. I just don’t understand.

  • Sharon

    July 4th, 2016 at 9:59 AM

    Hi Stephanie, I feel your pain. My partner of ten years died through a fall. He was an alcoholic. He asked me if hehe could come over the evening of his accident. I said no. This decision isis destroying me. He passed away by withdrawal of food and liquids as he was in a vegetative state. The fall caused him to have a heart attack and his brain was deprived of oxygen. I called him a couple ofof hours before his fall and he asked mto to collect him from the train station where he was drinking. Why didn’t I go get him…. My life is ruined

  • Emily

    January 7th, 2016 at 9:26 AM

    You know what’s annoying? When you’re told over and over what to do and why to do it…. but never ever mention HOW to do it. It’s like telling my son to go do his laundry without teaching him how to do the process. I’ve read so many of these articles. They are ALL the same. Nothing new. Nothing useful. Tired of it. In the end, the person figures out how to do it by him/herself, on his/her own term. LET GO. What does it mean anyway. Of course the one who can’t let go doesn’t know how to do it.

  • Peter

    January 8th, 2016 at 8:36 AM

    It sounds like you might find this to be helpful:
    griefrecoverymethod.com

    It’s a very concrete and systematic method where you go through the relationship you had/have with the person you’re grieving and find all the things you wish to say, things you need to forgive and things you want to apologize for. You write this down in a letter which you then literally read out loud to a listening witness. If you managed to include all the emotionally important statements in the letter you’ll then find that you actually let go of the grief during the process.

    I’ve used it extensively and it’s been life changing for me.

  • Emily

    January 9th, 2016 at 7:21 PM

    Peter, Thank you. I’ve requested the book at the library. From your description, it sounds like something I’ve already done. The thoughts and emotions I suppressed for decades came out and I’ve expressed them to all parties involved. Oh, yeah. I wanted to let them know what was not okay, and that they are NOT the kind of people they pretend to be. I didn’t want anyone to die without hearing the truth from my mind, and I feel good for being real, for stating facts, for acknowledging the elephant in the room.

    I still get angry and sad. I envision a fire that is burning itself out. But maybe the anger and sadness will never go away…. that I am stuck with having to manage them as best as I could (which is another thing to be mad about). Ugh. If people just did their jobs right to begin with!

    I find it helps when I tell myself what year it is and that whatever happened in the past is not happening anymore. It makes the tears stop, the anger less. “Let go” is just noise. It makes it sound like you release something that flies away and disappears in the air. Whoever says it sounds like they’ve never experienced grief. In reality, people have memories. Unless they have amnesia, those memories are forever stored and are available for viewing. Not just the images, but also the associated emotions. Instead of telling people to “let go,” why not be honest and say these things are here to stay and that you ARE stuck with the task of controlling your emotions. It’s mind control. That’s what I’m beginning to think. There’s no end to this. The author makes it sound like the story ended when the man visited his father’s grave, his fire put out. A perfect movie ending. But that may not be the case at all. Perhaps, he simply mastered controlling the fire that still exists and no longer needs counseling, which he may still need in the future. Bottom line: GRIEF does NOT end, and it doesn’t mean you are bitter.

  • Sara

    March 27th, 2016 at 5:08 PM

    Emily, I agree with all you wrote – its honest and healthy and true for many people. Let go is nonsense. As you described, grief does get better, it does get easier, but not by itself – one has to do lot of inner work, for a long time and with support, to get to a place where grief no longer controls you or poisons you. But its still there. It would be way better if people wouldn’t hurt others in the first place. And that’s why an apology is often just not enough and never will be. It doesn’t take away the painful work you’ll now have to do for years. It doesn’t change the fact that grief work is hard and if you don’t have the support to do the inner work, the grief does win. Some people are stuck with unsupportive family that they cannot escape from, and so that’s what happens, and people outside need to know and respect that, not just gloss it over with “you just don’t want to get better” and “let go.” Sometimes evil does win. But every person can get better, if you do the inner work, small moment by small moment, and keep looking for emotionally supportive people. Don’t give up,

  • Emily

    March 28th, 2016 at 7:25 PM

    Thx, Sara! Will keep your writing for future reading. It’s nice to feel understood.

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