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The Impact of Forgiveness on Healing and Grief

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When someone we love dies, the impact of this death hurts our mind and emotions the very same way a physical injury to our body would. This emotional trauma requires time for healing, time to readjust to life with a new paradigm and time to navigate the emotions that surface as a way to make sense of our loss.

One feeling that is common for all of us in grief, is guilt. Guilt presents itself very naturally as a result of our sadness and anger. These feelings leave us in a state of upset and dysregulation as the mind works to navigate these feelings, make sense of them and get us back to our neutral state of equilibrium. As part of this processing, sadness and anger team up and together, guilt is born.

Guilt Is a Powerful Emotion

Guilt is an emotion that places all of the responsibility and accountability in one place, allowing us to channel our thoughts to one area of focus; zeroing in so we can find answers to all of our questions, and if we can’t find answers, we can at least attach blame.

This guilt focus is where we very falsely stand in a place of wishing, wondering and even believing that if we had only done something differently, said something differently, known more, done more… our loved one would have had a better life, not have suffered or died.

Guilt Is a Normal, Natural Response to Loss

It is very important to know that guilt is a normal, natural and important response to loss and part of the emotional healing process, and we do not want to extinguish it or attempt to remove it as an emotion or feeling. But we do need to hold an awareness of guilt and be prepared to recognize and address it before it becomes overwhelming, or we find ourselves ruminating on all of the “would have, should have, could haves.”

Compassion and Forgiveness Counter Guilt

So, how does one counter guilt? What do we say to ourselves when sadness and anger win, and we are looking guilt in the eye and feeling very much convicted?  Compassion and forgiveness are the tools. Hindsight and distance provide a great advantage to guilt as it now sees all the things that “could” have been done differently. But this is an unfair advantage. It is not an advantage you had during your journey, and how is it even possible to defend yourself from this? Compassion and forgiveness: these are your tools.

In the moments of your journey with your loved one, you did the best you could at the time, with the knowledge and resources you had. There is nothing more you could have done, said, believed, thought, imagined or provided that could have changed the outcome of your journey. Everything you did was done with your best intentions; it was done with love. If in fact errors were made; they were not made with malice — they were made because you didn’t know better. Had you known better or differently, you would have done better or differently. There is just no other truth to be known.

Choosing a New Thought, Choosing Self-Forgiveness

Guilt is your own internal judge and jury system. To convict yourself of guilt, you sentence yourself to a lifetime of sadness and anger. This sentence will not change anything about the past, but what it will do is prevent you from integrating grief into your life, from allowing yourself compassion and grace for being human, and prevent a future life of peace and yes, ultimately, satisfaction with life, and possibly even happiness, again.

Allow yourself to be sad. Allow yourself to be angry. Allow yourself to release your emotions. Express all emotions by sharing your thoughts with others or writing a letter to your loved. Talk to them if that feels good, sharing your feelings, asking for forgiveness if there are things you want or need to have forgiven. Then have this same conversation with yourself. Ask yourself for this same forgiveness. Know in your heart, mind, body and soul that you did the best you could with what you had at the time, and grant yourself this forgiveness. Release yourself from the sentence of guilt; allow yourself to heal, and know that in forgiveness we are choosing a new thought, we are choosing to be compassionate towards ourselves, and it is here that the healing is fostered.

Compassion and Forgiveness Exercise

This exercise can be done in any way that feels good to you. Modify to fit your comfort level and needs. Have a pen and paper available so you can write as you feel the desire. You can choose to get still and work through this exercise by reading over a few times, using it as a meditation, or as affirmations, reinforcement or reminders when you find guilt presenting itself.

Quiet Breathing Meditation

In a quiet space, allow yourself a moment to breathe in a deep, cleansing and very full breath through your nose. A breath so deep, you can feel the oxygen filling your lungs, heart, chest and abdomen. Focus your mind on how it feels to bring a deep, deep breath into your lungs. Feel it expanding your body; imagine it filling itself completely into your body, filling all cells with new, clean, fresh oxygen. Release this breath with a bit of power through your mouth. Imagine you are forcing anything from your body that no longer serves health, peace and calmness.

Focusing on the cleansing breath coming in and out, as you breathe in, say to yourself, “Drawing in love, compassion and forgiveness.” As you release, say to yourself, “Releasing all that no longer serves love, compassion and forgiveness.”

Breathe in and out three or four times, whatever feels comfortable, repeating these statements. As we draw in love, compassion and forgiveness, we are reminding ourselves of its existence and our ability to choose these feelings, over guilt. As we release anything that does not serve love, compassion and forgiveness, we allow our love, compassion and forgiveness room to grow.

Affirmations, Positive Reinforcements, Reminders

Below are statements that can be used as affirmations, positive reinforcement, reminders or part of a meditation. The goal is to really feel into an acceptance of your limits as a human, and the knowledge that you did do, think, feel, behave and believe the best you could. Recognizing and honoring our limits and power as humans allows for grace and compassion as we consider the position of guilt.

Find a quiet place and just for a moment, sit with yourself and allow your thoughts to just come up as you think about allowing compassion and forgiveness for yourself.  Notice what your mind is saying. Allow the thoughts to drift in and out as you settle in and just notice — be the observer.

Now take a moment and read the affirmations below, staying with the ones that resonate with you. Sit for a moment and notice what comes to mind as you consider these thoughts. See which ones speak to you.

Affirmations are more than just repetition; it is believing, it is knowing. Know these words for yourself as you continue to heal through your grief. Focus on one, two or as many as you like. Find one that speaks to you and see if there is something that helps foster compassion and forgiveness for yourself. You may want to journal these statements and write about them. You may want to post them on your refrigerator, mirror or places you sit regularly. This is a reframing; this is a loving kindness exercise toward yourself and one that can help make room for healing.

All that I am, have been and will be, is a kind, attentive, loving person.

I am limited in my power to control all things.

I thought, felt, acted and reacted to circumstances with the absolute best of intentions.

Every intention was for the best outcome.

I did not desire or intend to cause or create harm.

I did the best I could, with the knowledge I had at the time.

I forgive myself for not doing, thinking feeling, acting or behaving in all the ways I can only now see could have been different.

Had I known differently; I would have done differently.

Today I allow myself the love and compassion of forgiveness.

I release myself from guilt.

There is no guilt in my heart.

I could not have done things differently.

I could not have loved more, harder or stronger.

I did what I knew to do.

I did the very best I could, and even more.

Guilt has no place in my heart.

I forgive myself for expecting more from me than was possible.

I did what I knew to do.

I replacing guilt with forgiveness,

I make space for healing.

I release myself from guilt.

Releasing Guilt, Accepting Forgiveness

The healing process is one that ebbs and flows. You may feel very sad, angry and guilty one day; and the next day things may not feel so heavy. Practicing forgiveness lifts some of that weight, so eventually the ebbing and flowing calms itself, and a return to equilibrium is possible.

Honor your emotions, know that everything you feel is normal, natural and expected. Guilt is a powerful emotion, and one that serves a role in our grief healing. As we work with it, we begin to realize this role is ultimately to teach us that we are human; with constraints on our ability do know all, do all and change all things. We may have made mistakes, not known or could have done things better; but we also hold in our hearts the fact that we did the best we could with what we had at the time.

Honoring all the good we did do, all the support, love, kindness and compassion we were able to share — these things help us love ourselves enough to forgive what we just could not have done differently. And we release a bit of guilt with each moment we accept forgiveness for ourselves. Release the guilt. Let go and let compassion allow forgiveness.

Getty image by Stockalet

Originally published: August 20, 2021
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