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Let me tell you about my experience of forgiveness toward my aunt.  For a number of years I was able to avoid seeing her or talking to her.  Nonetheless, I knew the day would come when I would be seeing her.  It happened as I suspected at the funeral of my other aunt, the older sister who lived on the second floor.

After an extended stay in a nursing facility she died.  The funeral home was the same one which provided the services for my father, my mother and most of the rest of my relatives from both sides of my family-of-origin.  The Catholic funeral was held at the parish which my father and his family attended when he was a child.  He graduated from the parochial school administered by the parish.

As the day of the funeral approached I wondered how I would react.  I did as Worthington suggests “recall” that day when my aunt said to my mother, “You deserve everything you’ve gotten.  You’re the reason your husband is dead.”  When I imagined the scene, the bitterness and hatred toward my aunt resurfaced, and the vengeful fantasies recurred.  I could sense the toxicity of my unforgiving stance.  I allowed myself to remain with the feelings and thoughts the scene conjured within me.

Gradually, I decided to move on to the next step, and attempted to “empathize” with my aunt, imagining what could have caused her to make such remarks.  Little by little, I recalled facts of her life that I had learned and culled from the family’s oral history acquired over years of being together during good times and bad times.

Slowly, I began to see my aunt’s behavior in a different light.  In particular I recalled a photograph of her and my father on his eighth grade graduation day.  She stood beside him and seemed to be so pleased, so proud to be near him.  She loved him dearly and enjoyed a sense of comforting protection in his presence.  When she lost him to my mother and marriage, at some level I believe her grief began, many years before. (Now I am probably sounding more like the psychologist I am professionally, looking for the hidden, the unconscious memories and motivations that pervade our lives.)

She needed a lightning rod for her grief and bereavement, a grief that suffused and confused her with sadness, helplessness, and bitterness.  My mother was the perfect target for her anger, the woman whom my father chose to marry and who took him away from his own family-of-origin, from her.

With these thoughts I became more balanced in my reactions to my aunt’s “out of her mind” behavior years before, at my mother’s bedside.  I became more peace-filled and felt capable of extending to her my “altruistic” gift of forgiveness.  As best I could I “committed” to this stance of forgiveness as the day of the funeral approached.  When the moment came which I could no longer avoid, I was able to embrace my aunt, extend my condolences (“sorrowing with her”) and be with her without erupting.

I never said to her, “I forgive you.”  She would not have understood what I meant though I knew what I meant in detail because I had “recalled” and “empathized.”  It became clearer to me in that moment and in the time since that forgiveness is as much, if not more, for the one forgiving as for the one being forgiven.

Since that day many years ago now I have not seen my aunt or corresponded with her.  If I saw her today I could embrace her again and genuinely take an interest in how she is doing.  I am at peace, having forgiven her.  When she dies, I will make every effort to attend her funeral so I can embrace her daughter, my cousin, and extend my condolences to her for the loss of her mother.  I have been able to “hold on” to the forgiveness given and it has held on to me.

In my next posting I will tell more about Everett Worthington so that you will appreciate even more his work on forgiveness.

Posted in agingForgivenessmental healthspirituality on 27 April 2010
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