Grief is a complicated emotion. In the early days, life’s trivialities pale into insignificance. Little disagreements or annoyances fade away as you are thrown into the stark reality that life is precious. Arguing about whose turn it is to put the bins out seems petty and pointless, which of course it is.
However, over time, grief can breed resentment and anger as you try to find your place in this world without your child and try to understand other people’s emotions. You’ve changed, they’ve changed, everything you ever knew has changed.
These feelings are always natural, as I described in my post about the Whirlpool of Grief. However, it is easy to get caught up in the cycle of anger. Once you focus on those feelings, it is hard to move on from them. This leaves you feeling bitter, lonely and hopeless, and others feeling unable to help you or understand you.
I was recommended The Book of Forgiving by Desmond & Mpho Tutu some time ago. It looked useful so I bought a copy, yet I found it was many months later before I could bring myself to read it. I wondered why I never seemed to feel inclined to pick it up, and I realized I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to forgive.
Grief can put you in a hardened state where any slight, or grievance, or injustice can be magnified and other people become a target for your anger emotions. I knew, even in the midst of my anger, that I needed to forgive. Not just people, but life itself. Everything was so unfair. My life was stuck in an exhausting battle against others that really only seemed to be affecting me. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life holding onto the negative emotions which only seemed to sap my energy further and was impacting my health.
Yet, when I finally managed to read this book (which I took with me on holiday so I had no excuse to avoid it any longer) I realized that there were many more people and even situations that I needed to forgive – and, surprisingly, that I needed to forgive myself!
It would be easy for me to simply recommend this book to others, and I’ve done this to several people who have written to me the last couple of months… to the mother whose child died in a car crash, to the mother whose son died at war, to the mother whose child died not long after birth… so much sadness and loss and maternal love. But not everyone is up for buying a book to read, so I have condensed down the key points of the book in four blog posts, this being the first. Each post concludes with a stone ritual taken from the book, which is very easy and effective.
What I learned most from this book is that forgiveness isn’t about letting other people off the hook – the one who upset you with what they said or did, the one who didn’t understand your feelings, the one (or the thing) that killed your child…
…forgiveness is about freeing yourself from the burden of pain. If you have lost a loved one, the loss is painful enough, your mind and body doesn’t need to endure the heavy emotions of hate and anger too.
Desmond Tutu is a man of faith but he doesn’t rely on his beliefs to present his reasons for the importance of forgiveness (it’s not a book about religion at all so don’t let it deter you). Indeed, science has discovered a link between resentment and everything from backache and headaches to heart disease, cancer, and high blood pressure along with anxiety and depression. Whereas true forgiveness causes the reverse effect and ailments melt away as peace replaces the painful emotions.
At Christmas, consider family you haven’t seen for a long time or family members who you don’t really get along with and are perhaps not looking forward to seeing. We come together at Christmas because it’s in our nature to strive for harmony and unity – goodwill to all men – yet still we live in conflict and fear.
In grief, we don’t want to see anyone because our grief demands all our attention. At this time of year, I am contacted daily by bereaved parents desperate to find a way to cope with the Christmas period as the pressures to ‘be present’ mount up. Desmond Tutu explains:
‘In my own family, sibling squabbles have spilled into intergenerational alienations. When adult siblings refuse to speak to each other because of some offence, recent or long past, their children and grandchildren can lose out on the joy of strong family relationships. The children and grandchildren may never know what occasioned the freeze. They know only that ‘We don’t visit this aunt’ or ‘We don’t really know these cousins.’ … Anger and bitterness do not just poison you, they poison all your relationships, including those with your children.’
page 20, The Book of Forgiving
Similarly, in Mitch Albom’s acclaimed book The Five People you Meet in Heaven, the main character, Eddie, had always felt hatred towards his father for being distant and unloving, yet one of the people he meets in heaven advises:
‘Learn this from me. Holding anger is a poison. It will eat you from inside. We think that hating is a weapon that attacks the person who harmed us. But hatred is a curved blade. And the harm we do, we do to ourselves.’
page 149, The Five People You Meet in Heaven
‘Hatred is a curved blade’ – powerful words indeed, don’t you agree?
So, how does resentment affect you?
In this exercise, Desmond Tutu asks you to get a palm-sized stone. For one morning (around 6 hours), carry the stone in your non-dominant hand. Do not put the stone down for any reason at all during this time. After the time, answer the following questions, ideally in a notebook as you’ll use it again later.
1. What did you notice about carrying the stone?
2. When did you notice it the most?
3. Did it hinder any of your activities?
4. Was it ever useful?
5. In what ways was carrying the stone like carrying an unforgiven hurt?
6. Make a list of the people you need to forgive in your life.
7. Make another list of all those you would like to have forgive you.
For me, the stone became quickly uncomfortable and obstructive. I couldn’t use my hands as well as I used to. Whenever I wanted to do something, it got in the way; it prevented me from relaxing. I also got aches and cramps in my hand as it clutched the stone. Physically, it was getting in the way of me doing the things I needed and wanted to do, and it also started to cause me pain. I expect this would be the same for most people, and is of course the point of the exercise, but it is worth doing this yourself to truly identify with the weight of resentment you might be carrying.
The next post looks at what forgiveness is not.