Note: client names have been changed for reasons of privacy.
In early 2011, I completed a nine-month course of study at the Midwest Institute for Forgiveness Training in Minneapolis; not long after I bumped into Cara at a book store and we chatted about what was new in our lives. When I described the unconditional forgiveness process I had recently learned, Cara dismissively waved a hand.
"It’s o.k. I don’t need details," she said. "I don’t have any forgiveness issues."
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Cara began to shake uncontrollably, her face infusing with red.
"But," she continued, raising her voice while raising her arms over head, "if I ever saw my brother-in-law again I would beat him to death with a baseball bat."
Cara then looked at her upraised arms and burst into tears. I took her hand and held it as she cried. When she was finally able to speak, Cara whispered in my ear, "My brother-in-law murdered my sister. And I think it’s murdering me."
I nodded. And then I too began to cry.
Several months later, I took Cara through a forgiveness facilitation process known as the 8 Steps to Freedom. Now 10 years later, whenever we meet she always gives me a big hug and says, “Still feeling at peace. Thank you.” The peace she continues to feel stems from integrating the understanding that forgiveness is a gift one gives one’s self and the letting go of an expectation that is causing suffering.
Whereas the circumstances surrounding the death of Cara’s sister were unforeseen and shocking, the death of Joe’s father due to cancer was anticipated. The day before his father died, Joe visited him in the hospital with the intention of letting go of the pain of an abusive childhood by speaking words of forgiveness “before time ran out." Instead, Joe found himself “unloading a truck-full of rage on this dying man," leaving Joe filled with regret, guilt and shame.
“Out of nowhere the pain of being kicked like a family dog for most of my life was greater than the pain of his dying,” Joe told me at the outset of our working together toward forgiveness of both himself - for what he had done at his father’s deathbed - and his father. Over time, Joe came to understand that forcing forgiveness “just doesn’t work;" this understanding allowed him to slowly peel back the many layers of the pain of the many griefs he felt until he was finally able let go into forgiveness.
Grief and Forgiveness
My study of and work in both grief support and forgiveness has helped me to see a main unifying theme between grief and forgiveness: something has happened that we wish had not happened and what is left in the wake of our disappointed expectations is the need to come to terms with what was lost and what now remains. This is at the heart of both grief-healing and the healing of issues of forgiveness.
Whereas grief is a natural process, a healthy response to the pain and stress of loss, forgiveness is an intentional and effort-filled proceeding. Per the Midwest Institute for Forgiveness Training, forgiveness can be framed as a purposeful letting go of demands and expectations one makes on God, life, self or others as a condition for expressing love and other positive attitudes. Additionally it can be looked at as the releasing of an expectation that is causing one to suffer, as well as an internal state (one of renewal in which a state of inner reconciliation has been accessed) that can be expressed outwardly (but does not always have to be) – even if the person we need to forgive does not acknowledge the pain of our sense of loss, is not present or is no longer alive.
Finishing Unfinished Business
The peaceful internal state signifying the inner reconciliation of forgiveness requires a process that takes us from the intention of forgiveness and over the bridge to the fulfillment of our intention to forgive. Overtime I have come to blend two such processes in my forgiveness facilitation work. The first, called the Four Fold Path, can be found in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book, The Book of Forgiving.
The Four Fold Path is outlined as:
- Telling the story. Tutu recommends putting down on paper and then sharing with a friend, loved one or trusted person the truth of your story, starting with the facts as you see them. This process is to help you accept that whatever has happened cannot be changed or undone.
- Naming the hurt. This requires identifying the feeling within the facts – not always apparent at first. For example, Cara first identified “an outraged sense of injustice” at her sister’s murder as “the hurt” but then over time came to see that the pain of never seeing her sister again – and never having had the chance to say good-bye - as the true hurt. In naming the hurt it is important to remember that no feeling is wrong, bad, or invalid. Naming the hurt allows for grief-processing, and an acceptance of your own vulnerability.
- Granting forgiveness (which recognizes the shared humanity between the forgiver and the person being forgiven). Forgiveness is a choice, something we choose to do, according to Tutu, to move from victim to hero in our own story; we know we are healing when we are able to tell a new story.
- Renewing or releasing the relationship. If a loved one has died, renewing the relationship may mean to establish an inner continuing bond that allows you to adapt or adjust to the reality of what was lost and what now remains with a sense of inner reconciliation and peace. If the person you want to forgive is still alive, releasing the relationship means to feel a sense of peaceful inner reconciliation while not continuing in a relationship with the person you have forgiven. (See the blog: Continuing Bonds with Your Loved one After Death)
The second forgiveness process I use with clients can be found in Unconditional Forgiveness by Mary Hayes Grieco, director of the Midwest Institute for Forgiveness Training. According to Grieco, the process of forgiveness begins by preparing to make a change, the inner shift that can be thought of as healing. In preparing to make a change, I take clients through the first two steps of Tutu’s Four Fold Path: telling the story and naming the hurt. When a client is ready, I then take them through the 8 Steps to Forgiveness process below – a process that does not require the physical presence of the person being forgiven:
- State your will to make a change in attitude and move on.
- Express your emotions about what happened. Express your feelings exactly as they are inside you; “vent” to your satisfaction; release physically if necessary.
- Release the expectation(s) you are holding in your mind, one by one:
- Shift your expectations to a positive preference (“I would have preferred that you..” “I wish that you had..”)
- Acknowledge reality (“But that’s not what happened…”)
- Restate your will to move on
- Release the expectations with words and an inner letting go
- Sort out the boundaries: give others responsibility for their actions and take yours; visualize your personal space whole, and filled with light.
- Reach out to your personal Spiritual Source for healing/open up to get your needs met by the Universe in a new way.
- Receive healing (as love and light) from your soul and from Spirit into your body, emotions and mind.
- Send unconditional love to the person or situation, and release them.
- See the good in the person or situation; focus on that point of view.
An 8 Steps to Freedom session can take 1-2 hours to complete. Through this methodology, I have successfully helped many clients in forgiving themselves and others - those living or now deceased. If there are layers of complicated grief (see the blog: Coping With the Uncertainty of Ambiguous Loss) several forgiveness facilitation sessions may be required.
About the Author
Elizabeth Lewis is a certified grief support specialist, stress resilience trainer, spiritual counselor and motivational speaker. She travels extensively in the United States and Italy presenting talks and workshops on a wide variety of subjects including trauma healing, resilience-building, forgiveness facilitation, mindfulness, and healing art and writing. www.elizabeth-lewis-coach.com