On Healing 7/6/2009: Be willing to forgive yourself

Dear Dan,
My daughter died three years ago of the lung disease mesothelioma at age 38. She had suffered from depression, panic, and anxiety from a very young age.

When she was 2, I had depression and didn’t respond to her for months. I was not a hugging, loving mother similar to my own. And, like my own mother, I did all that I could to be a good mother. But now I know I could have done so much more for my daughter’s self-esteem and confidence. I did everything I could to help her through hard times. It is just now that I know all that I could have done. I cannot forgive myself.

Dear Unforgiven,
Like everyone reading this post, I wish I had the power of forgiveness. I wish I could take away your almost unfathomable pain. I wish neither you, your mother, nor your daughter had this horrible disorder known as depression, which saps life and closes hearts. I wish that gene had died out in your family many generations ago.

And most of all, I wish you had had more time with your daughter.

You conclude your letter by saying you cannot forgive yourself, but I would ask you if you are willing to try. It’s a difficult question and a painful one, but it requires a thoughtful, honest answer.

Many people who have lost loved ones tell me they are not willing to let go of the resentment they feel about themselves. But it’s not the resentment they are clutching; it’s the memories of their loved one. They tell me they are afraid that if their pain and guilt diminishes, so might their memories.

If you are willing to forgive yourself, what do you think it would take? Answer that question carefully, decide what you need to do, and then do it.

Several years after my sister died, I wanted to know what different religious traditions thought about where she is now. Frankly, I don’t recall most of them because they didn’t seem to make much sense to me.

But I do remember what one Buddhist said. He told me that he had lost his brother several years earlier. He said that when his brother was alive, “he was alive for me in 50 different ways. And now, he is alive for me in 49 ways.”

The pain of losing a child never goes away. There are always sad memories and an ache inside your heart for where your child once was. I am sure your love for your daughter endures. When the day comes that you begin to release your grip on your guilt, what can you do with all of that love you have for your daughter? How can you honor her memory?

If someone calls you tomorrow and says they lost a child and feel consumed with regret about things they have done or didn’t do with a child, how would you feel?

I don’t know what kind of person you were before this terrible tragedy, but I would guess that, given your history of depression, you are a pretty sensitive person. And I would also guess that you would feel great compassion and understanding for this person who called you. You would encourage them to forgive themselves. You might remind them that they loved their child very much and did everything in their power to be good parents. You might cry for them and cry with them, as well as cry for yourself.

Gerda Weissmann Klein survived the Nazi death camps and, along with her husband, created a foundation that teaches children to be tolerant. She once said that no pain should be wasted, that we can use our pain to help others.

When you lose a child, the grief can be crippling. And sometimes that grief turns into a clinical depression that needs to be treated.

But somehow, no matter what, the spirit emerges. We might be battered and bruised and carry scars of our suffering, but for most of us, life resumes. And when you are ready, please know that the world is open to you and could benefit from your compassion.

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