Recently we lost my dear mother-in-law, and as everyone knows who has ever been through loss, it’s a very sensitive time when hearts are raw and it’s easy to hurt someone without knowing it- or, as it sometimes happens, while knowing it perfectly well.
A situation arose with some family members who had not been involved at all, or very little, with Mom’s life while she was declining, but who felt comfortable setting up in her house after she passed, and then even decamping with a large amount of her belongings afterward with no notice. We walked into her house with the kids to try to come to terms with their grief, have some talk and prayer time together, and were greeted with big empty places where lamps, large rugs, and paintings had been. The place looked like it had been looted.
Now, it’s just stuff. We’re raising our kids, as best we can, to value people over things, and they get it, sometimes even better than we (ok, I) do. But this was the day after their grandmother’s funeral. And there had been no communication beyond, hey can we take these couple of small items? Of course.
My kids had lived in that home, and had known it since their birth. Everything in it spoke of happy times with their grandparents, and even of the sad times that they had shared during the long, painful illnesses and deaths. We could cheerfully have parted with all of those things, and more- in time, and with communication. But as it was, the kids just sat down and cried. As one of them said, “It makes her feel more dead.”
We weren’t given either time or communication, at least not before the fact. In fact, we received several emails in the days to come detailing all the other items that we were not to dispose of, because these folks would be coming back with a U-Haul. I was, in the old expression, fit to be tied.
First of all, my kids were shocked and hurt at a time when they were already shocked and hurting. They had been constantly at the bedside of their grandmother, through thick and thin, and gave her much joy and peace as she passed away. This is an honor, and a privilege they would never trade, but they were in need of some consolation. And they got a big smack. As a mama, I really, really don’t like it when my kids get smacked, especially when they are down, and more especially by people who ought to be concerned about their well-being, and, dare I say it, who ought to be grateful to these kids for having been with Mom when they themselves couldn’t be bothered to show up while she was alive. For years.
So, there was rage.
Some of it was righteous anger, that people could have their priorities so messed up as to wrong Mom with their absence when she needed them, and then to help themselves to her things after she passed.
Some of it was hurt for my kids, and some for my husband and myself. All of it, I think, was understandable.
But it was killing me. I was trying to mourn and heal, and instead was bailing out my emotional boat constantly to keep from sinking.
I am a talker- when I am upset, I have to talk about it or I will have a conniption, which I think is a combination of a stroke and a coronary event, usually involving one’s eyeballs exploding. So not only did my poor husband knew how I felt in great detail, but I felt unable to help the kids deal with their own feelings, so swamped was I.
What to do. I asked my dearest friends, my folks, and my dear brother, and they all gave me great advice, which I will impart to you. My question was: how to forgive, truly, and to conquer this anger, when the people I need to forgive are not sorry, even a tiny bit, for anything? And may not even realize what they are doing? Which sounds awfully familiar.
Here’s what I was told, what I tried, and what worked:
1. Ask Jesus for help in forgiving. He forgave his murderers from the Cross. While they were murdering Him. And they certainly weren’t saying, “Gee, I’m sorry.” Actually hand the burden to Him, and to Mary.
2. Pray as earnestly as you can for the offenders, for the softening of their hearts, for the development of their awareness of and compassion for others. It doesn’t take away the anger, but it is hard to feel really destructively angry toward someone for whose welfare you are begging.
3. Accept that you are going to feel angry for awhile. Stop trying so hard not to feel angry. Anger itself is not a sin. “Be angry, and sin not.” (Eph. 4:26)
4. Give it a little time. It’s amazing what a week will do.
5. Step as far back from the situation as you can. Set it down, and walk away. Even if you feel you need to take care of everything and it all depends on you, set it down. Even if only for a short time. Retreat to find peace. Even soldiers are sent back from the front to recoup during a battle. Watch Band of Brothers- it’s true.
6. Try hard to find some extenuating circumstances, or to understand what in the world is going on inside those dopey heads of theirs. I.e. They are grieving too; they don’t realize what they are doing; we didn’t communicate well enough up front; the sun was in their eyes; even if it seems kind of lame to you, it’s something, and the act of trying to be generous is a good one- you will be less upset with yourself for feeling so bad.
7. Remember that forgiveness is as much, or more, for your own good than for the good of others. That kind of rage and hurt is toxic and will poison you after awhile, and will render you unable to help those around you who need you.
8. Think about hell for a couple of minutes- really think about it, envision it. Think, “Do I really want anyone in that?” Of course you don’t. You may truly wish to smack them quite hard in the face, but- not hell. That’s a comforting thought. You do, deep deep down, wish for their ultimate good. Which, happily enough, does involve them coming to some sort of realization of what creeps they have been at some point. Just don’t expect it anytime soon… or necessarily even in this life.
9. Try some gallows humor. At first you may not be in the mood, but in the past week or so I have gotten a lot of cheap enjoyment out of pointing out to my husband various rugs that X forgot to take with him. Like the sanctuary rug at our parish church as we were kneeling for communion at the altar rail. It’s a lovely oriental. Luckily, my sweet husband has a good sense of humor. I hope God does. Anyhow laughing makes me less angry.
10. I saved this for last, because when you are really hurt and angry this is terribly hard to do- it can actually make you more angry, thinking things like, “Just because I “forgot” to pay back my son 20 bucks doesn’t mean it’s ok for these other guys to knife me in the back!!” Of course it’s not ok. It’s wrong, and getting knifed hurts, legitimately. But your stuff is not ok, either. Your kid probably needs that 20 bucks. So give it some time and space, and then remember that you hope to be forgiven for your own stupid, careless stuff. We can’t ask God for forgiveness if we are clinging tightly to a grudge.
Has this all worked for me? Well, it wasn’t like a whiteboard eraser, with everything disappearing at once. But a huge layer of resentment was washed away as soon as I got our Lord and His Mother involved, and then it just got better from there. When I allow myself to really think about it, I do still feel that anger trying to bubble up. So I am still maintaining a distance, until my forgiveness becomes more firmly rooted. The truth is, I don’t want to waste any more precious minutes of my life feeling like that.
Of course I realize that in the scheme of things, there are much, much harder things to forgive than what I have talked about here. I don’t pretend that I could just apply my convenient ten steps and be floating on a cloud of forgetful joy and love in every circumstance- maybe not in ANY circumstance. But forgiveness, as one of my friends reminded me, is an act of the will. Decide to do it for your own good, begin the process, and put it in God’s Hands. Whatever healing comes will come from Him anyway, so let Him handle it. Meanwhile, know that there are people who are sorry that you are hurting, and who wish they could make it better for you, and be grateful for them. That kind of love can help begin to heal whatever injury you have sustained. Reflect on how you will someday pay them back for their kindness in your hour of need.
Which reminds me it’s time for a trip to the ATM for a twenty.