Don’t Forgive Yourself

[A new grief friend emailed me yesterday in angst because he doesn’t know how to forgive himself for the way he acted when his life mate/soul mate was dying. What follows is the email I sent him. I hope he doesn’t mind my sharing my own words because I think they are important enough to preserve on this blog.]

Dear Friend,

Try this: Don’t forgive yourself.

I just looked at Grief: The Great Yearning to see how long it took me to forgive myself. Day 211. That is a very long time from where you are. And it’s not so much that I forgave myself but that I realized there was nothing to forgive.

In my book on day 211, I mentioned the numbness of that last year, and why it had to be that way, why it was okay I acted the way I did without actually enumerating all the problems of that last year, but there truly were a lot of things I had to learn to accept. For example, I often bristled when Jeff talked to me. Because of the cancer in his brain (which I didn’t know about), he could no longer hold a thought in his head long enough to have a conversation, so he “lectured” me. I clenched my fists and jaw while I choked on his words. Sometimes I walked away from him when he was talking because he wouldn’t listen (or as I now understand, couldn’t listen) to anything I had to say. During that last year, I hated when he used “my dishes,” though up until then, we shared everything. (It took me a long time to understand why I hated that he used those dishes, but I now see those dishes as a metaphor for our lives. As long as we had a life together, they were our dishes. When he began moving away from our shared life, leaving me to find my own way, they reverted to being my dishes.) We bickered about what I would do when he was gone — he wanted me to go stay with my father so he wouldn’t have to worry about me, and staying with my father was the very last thing I wanted (well, second to last — the very last thing I wanted was for Jeff to die.) And the month before Jeff died, we had the only truly horrific fight we ever had.

Would I have given anything to go back and redo that year? Of course I would. After he died, I suffered over every disconnect, over every time I could have been, should have been kinder, over every word I didn’t treasure.

The truth is, I lived the best I could under horrible circumstances. The truth is, you lived the best you could under horrible circumstances. And, the truth is, you reacted normally to something that was done to you, then you went on with your lives. The only reason it is a problem is that your life mate died.

It wasn’t until day 335 that I realized the nature of grief. When the loved one is alive, we are on a Ferris wheel, riding up and down and around, up and down and around. Always, we are ourselves, being kind and nasty, loving and angry, always it seems as if we are in the same moving seat, paying no attention to the other seats on the ride. When our loved one dies, the Ferris wheel stops, and we see that we are in every single one of those seats. Something that passed is no longer past. Something that was vital and in motion is now static. We have to grieve every damn one of those seemingly infinite seats, seats that we never would have paid any attention to if the ride had just kept going.

So what if you got angry? You were alive. You were in a relationship. People get angry. It sounds to me as if you had reason to be angry. You were hurt. And underlying all of that was the soul-destroying knowledge that your mate was dying, which makes you really, really angry. (Even when you know a person is dying, though, you don’t really know it. In my case, I just figured Jeff would be forever dying and I would be forever struggling to deal with it.) When the dying goes on for a very long time, you can’t be your optimum self. Because of that damn Ferris wheel. You are on the ride, dealing with stresses that no human should have to deal with, and since you are still on the ride, you see only that single seat.

And then the damn thing stops.

I understand you cannot unsee the seats of the ride you wish to unsee. They are there. Every single now-stationary seat has to be grieved. So don’t forgive yourself. Grieve for that which you lost. Grieve that you reacted in a human way. Grieve that the Ferris wheel stopped. But don’t try to forgive yourself. Wait. Cry. Scream. And some day, maybe day 211, maybe day 345, maybe day 763, you will understand that you were simply living, simply doing the best you could under untenable conditions.

Do we want to be better? Of course we do. Do we want to have done better? Of course.

But the tragedy is not the hurt, not your anger, not whatever you did to try to relieve the stress. The tragedy is death. If you had lived to an old age as a couple, your anger would have been long forgotten. It’s only death that makes it relevant.

So grieve. Face the real culprit: Death itself.

(And oh, my gosh, do I sound ridiculously pedantic. Take what you can from this email and disregard the rest.)

But know that I understand, and one day, you will too.

Wishing you strength as you carry this burden of grief. Wishing you peace.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

6 Responses to “Don’t Forgive Yourself”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    That’s wonderful, Pat. I’m sure he really appreciated hearing that.

  2. Sue Williams Says:

    Perfect words again Pat, and every one oh so true. Even after two and a half years I still go over my words and actions as my husband was dying, and beat myself up over anything that in hindsight I wish had done differently. Your words always help me – keep writing.
    Sue W. UK.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’m sorry you’re still beating yourself up, but it takes as long as it takes. Those dying times are truly stressful and horrifying. It’s amazing we ever do find a way of accommodating what we did or didn’t do.

  3. Coco Ihle Says:

    Beautifully said, Pat.

  4. Robert Brown Says:

    Good stuff Pat, I’ve yet to come across anyone who writes about bereavement with more clarity and insight than you, it’s a rare talent (albeit one I’m sure you would prefer never to have discovered). Love from England!

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