Grief and Forgiveness: Part One

I can’t remember when we first promised a post on grief and forgiveness and I couldn’t bring myself to look through old posts to figure it out; let’s just say, I hope no one was holding their breath.  Actually, I’ve started the post several times.  In fact, I wrote so much at one point that it became clear to me I had a two-parter on my hands, but then I scrapped everything and decided to started again.

Nevertheless here we are (finally!), ready to deliver part one in our two-part series on forgiveness.  In part one, today’s post, we will talk all about forgiving others.  Later on, in part two, we’ll discuss forgiving ourselves.  Got it?  Good.

Anger

Grief is a storm of emotions and one of the most common is anger.  Depending on the circumstance, that anger can radiate in a thousand different directions – anger at someone else, anger at yourself, anger at God, anger at the universe, anger towards the person who died, and so on.

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Anger towards the person who died

For some, anger is a new and confusing emotion. Because anger is often considered a negative emotion or attribute, many feel like it’s something shameful that needs to be hidden away; this is especially true if a person feels anger towards a person who’s died.  With age-old expressions like ‘don’t speak ill of the dead,’ it’s no wonder some might feel that acknowledging their anger is as good as besmirching their loved one’s memory.

Of course, there are many instances where people are openly willing to acknowledge their anger towards the deceased; but fully owning one’s anger doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. In,stead many choose to avoid  their anger, ruminate on it and, in many cases, allow it to complicate their grief and impact their emotional health.

First, we’re here to say that feeling anger towards a deceased loved one is totally normal.  There are a zillion reasons why you might feel this way, but let’s just mention a few.

  • An old, unresolved hurt that you never reconciled before their death. This can be almost anything because, let’s be honest, people do a lot of messed up stuff that hurts.
  • A death by suicide, in which you feel anger that a loved one intentionally ended their life.
  • A death by overdose, drunk driving, etc in which you feel anger that they used a substance and put themselves in harm’s way.
  • A death by risky behavior (high-speed driving, risky sports, riding a motorcycle, etc) in which the death feels avoidable.
  • Anger that someone didn’t ‘fight’ hard enough, common if someone opted to stop treatment, or not seek treatment, for an illness.
  • Anger that someone didn’t take care of themselves, common if a death was due to heart disease, diabetes, lung cancer or other diseases in which you feel a different lifestyle choices could have prevented the disease or outcome. This could include anger about a late diagnosis because someone didn’t go to the doctor.
  • Information comes out after a death that causes anger. This could be anything from anger about estate and will to learning of infidelity to a million things in between.
  • Anger about things that a person said or did while they were ill. This could also take the form of anger about things they didn’t say or didn’t do.

Anger towards someone other than the person who died.

Grief can involve anger towards many people, not just the person who died.  Again there are numerous reasons for this anger, but a few examples may include:

  • Anger at a doctor for not catching a disease process early enough, or not being able to cure the disease, or a medical error.
  • Anger at others who may be perceived as contributing indirectly to the cause of death, including people your loved one used drugs with, rode motorcycles with, etc.
  • Anger at someone who contributed directly to the cause of death, like in a case of homicide.
  • Anger at friends and family who were not there to help and support you or your loved one during an illness.
  • Anger at family members for how they handled end of life decision making, including disagreement over decisions around continuing treatment, hospice care, withdrawing support, etc.
  • Anger at family for how they handled issues after a death, including funeral planning, estate issues, etc.

Here is the thing about anger; though it gets a bad rap, anger can actually be healthy and important.  You can read more about grief and anger here.  Anger can be useful, but it becomes a problem when it remains unresolved and starts to inhibit your ability to live in a healthy and content way with healthy and content relationships.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness can go a long way to soothe the burn of anger, but for many reasons it can seem out of reach; especially when the person you’re angry at has died or when there is deep-seeded pain and hurt.  People often have misgivings about forgiveness because they think it isn’t attainable, puts them at risk for future hurts, or makes them weak – but none of this has to be true.  This is why we think it’s so important to have an in-depth discussion about forgiveness; to explain what it is and what it isn’t and hopefully make it feel like a realistic and desirable possibility.

grief and forgiveness

The definition of forgiveness

This may seem obvious, but in reality philosophers, psychologists and others in academia have spent years debating what exactly forgiveness is and (no surprise) they still don’t agree.  So for the purposes of our discussion, I will tell you the definition that we find the most useful.  This definition will serve as a guide as we discuss forgiveness further.

The definition we prefer emerged from the Human Development Study Group at University of Wisconsin.  This group met weekly for years to explore the concept of forgiveness from philosophical, psychological and psychiatric perspectives before finally settling on a definition.  They define forgiveness as,

“A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and indifferent behavior to one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her” (Enright et al in Enright and North 1998).

So this means forgiveness is not…

Forgiveness is not eliminating the wrong that someone has done nor does it mean that we excuse a person for what they have done.  As Joanna North has stated in her writings on forgiveness,

“We still see him as the perpetrator of the wrong and the one who is responsible for it . . . there must be a real sense of the wrongdoer as responsible and the wrong as real if forgiveness is to be meaningful at all.  After all, if there is no wrong and no wrongdoer, then there is nothing and no one to forgive,” (North in Enright and North 1998).

This is an important point so I am going to restate it one more time: forgiveness doesn’t mean that you no longer think someone did something wrong!

Another thing that happens in grief that isn’t quite forgiveness, but is important just the same, is that people sometimes realize their anger has been displaced or unreasonable.  Let’s face it, grief can make your feel and act a little crazy.  In your acute grief, your emotions may take precedence over logic and reason; then, later on, you may realize some of your judgements were a little off.  In certain situations you may ultimately realize that it wasn’t forgiveness you needed, but merely to see things differently.

For example, someone might feel anger or blame toward a friend who used drugs or rode motorcycles with their loved one.   After some time griever may come to recognize that ultimately their loved one made their own choices and they might release some of the anger and blame they felt towards their loved one’s friend.  This release can be healthy and valuable, but it is important to recognize that it is not the same thing as forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about realizing blame or anger was misplaced.  To review, forgiveness is about recognizing that a wrong has been done and someone has the right to be angry, yet they actively forgive anyway.

A model for forgiveness

One thing we know from research is that using a specific model as a guide to achieving forgiveness, is actually more effective than relying on general therapy alone (Enright et all in Enright and North 1998).  Though there are several different models out there, the one I am going to talk about is Robert Enright’s model which has further been expanded on by others.  Why this model?  Because I like it! But don’t let that stop you from exploring other models on your own or with your therapist.

Enright’s model involves 20 steps, so I won’t go in to full detail here, but these steps are broken into 4 phases – the uncovering phase, the decision phase, the work phase and the deepening phase (or the outcome phase).  Applying this model of forgiveness has shown clear outcomes in helping people find forgiveness (often people who initially thought they would never be able to forgive).  The below graphic reflects the 4 phases.

enright forgiveness process

The use of Enright’s model has been linked to decreases in anxiety and depression, with increases in self-esteem and hope (Enright et all in Enright and North 1998).  Fitzgibbons also observed a decrease in anger and hostility, and an increase in ability to control anger, enhanced trust, and freedom from “the subtle control of individuals and events from the past.” (Fitzgibbons in Enright and North 1998).  All exciting stuff, right?  So what does this process of forgiveness look like?

Uncovering Phase

In the uncovering phase, you really dig in to what your anger is all about.  This phase is about acknowledging it, understanding it, etc.  This is especially important if we are experiencing anger that we’re denying or not outwardly willing to acknowledge.  Enright, Fitzgibbons, and others make the point that many people mistakenly believe that the only way to resolve anger is to express it.  In this phase it is important to begin to understand that anger can be dealt with without expressing it.

Decision Phase

In the decision phase it is important to really consider the option of forgiveness – the benefits of forgiveness, understanding what forgiveness is and what it isn’t, etc.  In this space, it’s important to remember that forgiveness does not mean a person cannot express anger nor does it mean they cannot seek justice.

Work Phase

The work phase, as psychiatrist Richard Fitzgibbons explains, often, “…begins as an intellectual process in which there is no true feelings of forgiveness.”  True forgiveness comes over time and involved working to understand the person being forgiven and the context of their behaviors.  This task can feel impossible at first and progress can be slow, but ultimately empathy can be found and (hard as this is to believe) compassion can emerge.  It is important to remember in the work phase that forgiveness does not cure sadness, hurt, or mistrust; what it can do is help diminish fixations on things like anger and revenge.

Deepening Phase/Outcome Phase

The final phase (called the deepening phase by Enright and the outcome phase by Fitzgibbons) involves finding meaning in the forgiveness process.  You may consider times that you yourself have been forgiven by another or you might begin to recognize the positive impact of forgiveness on your emotional and physical health and on your ability to cope with and integrate your loss.

Where to go from here

Forgiveness isn’t easy.  You aren’t going to read this post and magically find forgiveness. Instead, I hope this post may be a first step in considering the possibility of forgiveness. Consider what forgiveness is and what it isn’t.  Consider forgiveness’ benefits to yourself, your mental health, and your grief.  And then, if even just a littlest part of you is open to it, dig a little deeper. 

If you have a therapist, talk to them about forgiveness and ask to use a model that is evidence-based (there are others than the one discussed above, like the REACH model).  If you don’t have a counselor, consider finding one and at the outset ask them if they have interest and experience in forgiveness.  If you aren’t ready to take that leap yet, you could begin with books on forgiveness.  A couple of great options are Exploring Forgiveness by Enright and North (which I have cited numerous times here) and The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (Newly Expanded Paperback Edition) by Simon Wiesenthal. If you are feeling especially philosophical you can check out On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (Thinking in Action) by Jacques Derrida.

Dealt with anger and forgiveness?  Leave a comment – your experience might help someone else more than you can imagine.  Stay tuned for our next installment on self-forgiveness – subscribe so you don’t miss it!


COMMENTS

sandra

Posted on March 24, 2015 at 1:08 pm

In the beginning i felt anger towards henry cause im sure he felt ill before he went for a nap and he just didnt tell me. But then i remembered what the coroner said that there was nothing i could have done, he was gone within minutes so i couldnt have changed the outcome no matter what i did. Its not easy to forgive him but it makes me happy that he loved me so much and that he died peacefully. Another part of this is that my good friend rick died the same way a week later but in his case his wife tried to give him cpr but it didnt work. By the time the ambulance showed up ( within 10 minutes) he was already gone. That shows me there is nothing i could of done to save henry. Still not easy though, the doubts will be there for awhile i think. But i forgive him cause i love him and im glad he didnt suffer and he died happy and in love with me.

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Linda Rubano

Posted on March 24, 2015 at 1:34 pm

The man I lost was someone else’s husband. He was my first love at 17 and we reconnected many years later. He asked me to move in with him which meant a 3000 mile journey that I made without hesitation. It lasted a month when he said he had to go back to his wife. I was SO hurt and angry. I moved back to New York but although we couldn’t live together, we loved each other and he phoned every day. He complained of hip pain and I was worried. In two months he was diagnosed with cancer. Then told him that I forgave him for the heartache he put me through. How could I let him go to his grave thinking I hated him? It helped him and lifted a heavy burden from my shoulders. He passed away three months later. I still cry every day because I miss him so much but happy that things were right between us before he died. Forgive everyone for everything!

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Janna

Posted on March 24, 2015 at 6:33 pm

My husband died from chronic emphysema…a long six years, and during the last two years I was his 24/7 carer. He was an addicted lifetime smoker, and he loved smoking! As much as I hated it! The last six months of his life were tortured and he found no peace as he wrestled with the fact he was dying when others his age were just settling into happy retirement. As I watched him die I felt very angry at times, angry because he had neglected to look after his health and angry that he was going to leave me on my own. We had been together 15 years and were soul mates, he was the love of my life and to lose him like this was just devastating. His last days were heart breaking and truly horrendous but I was with him till he died, as he had requested. I have had to forgive him because ultimately, we all make our own choices about our lifestyles, health and how we live. He made his choices, which were extremely detrimental to him, and to me as well…but end of the day they were HIS choices and I finally learned to respect that. I feel very sad that I now have to live alone without my beautiful man, but I have forgiven him. I know how much he loved me, and how much I loved him…that was the important thing really!

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Terry

Posted on March 24, 2015 at 6:56 pm

For me there is absolutely no reason for forgiveness for wanton acts of endangerment resulting in the premature deaths for many, including my wife Susan. Susan did everything right medically – annual breast and gynecological exams, yearly physical, etc. Last April, she very abruptly became seriously ill. After a week of numerous hospital tests we were told she had breast cancer which had likely spread. Fourteen days later three doctors came to her room to tell Susan she had less than a week to live. The breast cancer had taken her liver and her kidneys were failing. That evening she passed.

January 2nd, I received word from the U. S. Government that Susan was certified as a victim of radiation exposure from the above ground nuclear testing conducted near Las Vegas, NV during the 1950s – early 1960s. Susan lived in an eligible Eastern Nevada county during a high risk age span – mother’s womb to age 10. The scientists and decision makers for the above ground testing were fully aware of the nuclear hazards and risks to the general population. Tests were only conducted when the lower / higher atmospheric winds were to the N-NE of the test site – the least populated portion of the U. S.

The National Atomic Testing Museum (affiliate of Smithsonian), Las Vegas, NV has many displays that tell the story of the above & below ground testing and touts what an economic boon the programs were for Las Vegas during the 1950s. There were atomic cocktails served at atomic bars with entertainment by the atomic performer – Elvis Presley. The museum does not speak to the human cost of the nuclear testing. As of March 2, 2015, the U. S. Justice Department surpassed $2 Billion in awards under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. However, compensation does not right past federal government atrocities.

Forgiveness is out of the question! Moving past the anger is accomplished. Susan, my wife for 42 years and eternal soulmate asked me to take care of myself and move on with my life. To honor Susan ~ I’ve done the former; will eventually do the latter.

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Lynn

Posted on May 19, 2015 at 10:55 pm

How do you forgive the non support or lack of understanding from friends while going through the grieving process. I don’t know how to get past it…..

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Litsa

Posted on May 19, 2015 at 11:25 pm

Ugh, Lynn this is such a tough question. I wish there was an easy answer. I think for me it has been helpful to remember that before I lost someone I never could have fathomed what grief was like, and I imagine this is sometimes the case for those around us. In some cases they don’t understand the depths of the grief. In others they may have some sense, but simply don’t understand what we need. In many cases I don’t think the non-support or lack of understanding is malicious. Rather, it is a result of not knowing what to do, feeling helpless, etc. Trying to understand and remember some of those things has, at least for me, has made it easier when friends really don’t give us what we need. This post may be helpful in expaning your support system.

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Helen Zz

Posted on September 24, 2015 at 2:00 pm

I wrote a comment on another one of your articles, to ask if you could do an article on anger. I came across this article, but I didn’t expect you to link the journey from anger to be forgiveness. I don’t think I “get” what forgiveness is. Is “letting go of anger” the same thing as forgiveness. Maybe it’s because the word “forgiveness” has religious undertones with different meanings to me/my culture and I can’t see how feeling angry relates to that.

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Litsa

Posted on September 24, 2015 at 6:27 pm

Hi Helen, I am sorry, I thought I replied to that comment! We have a post about anger here: http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/all-about-anger/.

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Vicki B

Posted on November 27, 2015 at 2:58 pm

I know this will sound horrible but I like forgiveness Navy SEALS style. They have a patch with a skull on it, with words on the top saying “God will judge our enemies…” and the bottom says “We’ll arrange the meeting.”
After 13 years that’s all the further I’ve managed to move toward the land of forgiveness. I know it’s not my place to judge him (Osama bin Laden, one of the people who helped make it happen) but that I think someone needs to arrange the meeting for him. Or speed it up.
I hate myself for feeling the ways I do but Richard, my daughter’s godfather, said I don’t need to apologize for feelings, especially ones I didn’t cause to exist all on my own. I don’t think he was that crazy about Osama bin Laden either. Eric, one of the people who was killed on September 11, was his best friend. That’s why he’s my daughter’s godfather now.
Then again, until 2011 when they found bin Laden, I wasn’t even able to move anywhere with my grief. Thinking of him being free in the world, wondering who else he’d do it to, made it impossible for me to “heal.” I don’t know what that word means in terms of grieving so I put it in quotes. If healing actually occurs it didn’t start until May 2, 2011 for me. I don’t know why. I’m not that perceptive about such things.

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Mary Jane

Posted on January 18, 2017 at 9:48 pm

I do not know how I will EVER forgive my son-in-law. I lost my beautiful beloved daughter, Amy, age 30, and her 2 beautiful little girls (my adored and precious grandbabies), Claire and Abi, on Nov 17, 2016. They were killed in their sleep by her husband/babies Daddy. He then killed himself. They ADORED him, and vice versa. WE adored him and always called him our “son.” Until that fateful day, Amy’s husband was one of the kindest, gentlest, devoted, and loving husband and father you would ever want to meet. He was kind to everyone, and his family meant the world to him. We are so stunned, as are our Church families and all who knew him. He kept his, obviously very deep, depression, well hidden and contained. NO ONE knew. It all had to do with the fact that he could not successfully complete his Masters program (and last year it was the phD–when he found he didn’t pass, he took off on the run and there was a big manhunt for him. Oh, how I wish he’d never been found! Why did my precious babies and my beautiful daughter (his loving and devoted wife) have to DIE because he couldn’t pass his schooling and because HE felt like a failure? He WASN’T a failure, but he sure is now….he is a MURDERER! They had nothing to do with it, and those babies could have cared less! Why didn’t he just kill himself? No one understand why he had to take his entire family with him. His family that he loved and adored (and that was obvious to all) and vice versa? Not only did he deprive them of MANY, MANY DECADES of living, he has SHATTERED those left behind for the rest of our lives. I am very religious, but still I struggle every day to go on. I don’t want to be here in this world. The pain is EXCRUCIATING. I am hanging on for my 20 year old daughter and husband and others who love me. I don’t want to be selfish and hurt anyone but there are moments I feel I can’t take one more second of the pain. They ARE (and I speak in present tense because I know their spirits are still alive) a very beloved family and all who knows them loved them. My Amy and those little girls touched many, many lives with their kindness and pure love. I don’t know how to walk the earth without my precious 3 girls. They are my life. The pain each day is unbearable.

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Hilda

Posted on February 25, 2017 at 12:14 am

Forgiveness is a deep subject and your article is comprehensive, well researched. There are many nuggets in this article. For me what it stands out is the statement: Understand the person being forgiven and the context of their behavior. In my journey of forgiveness that has been key.

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