Choosing to forgive

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

How do I forgive the person who dumped my first-born son unconscious out of his car and left him to die? I lost my son almost three years ago; someone left him unconscious and he died in an empty parking lot alone. He was an organ donor and saved five different lives.

And to this day, we don’t know what happened to him. His criminal case has been closed. We are devastated, our family is broken, and everyone seems to be moving on, except for me. Each day I miss him more and more! I am angry and sad and I don’t think I will ever be able to move on. Do you think there will ever be healing and recovery from this tragic loss?

Miriam
 


 
Dear Miriam–

As I read your brief questions, I sense they carry with them many unspoken challenges and implications that stem from the unthinkable circumstances that led to your son’s tragic and unnecessary death–your rage at the abandonment of your son at a moment at which medical attention might have saved his life, the horror of his dying alone, your own helplessness to prevent what came to pass. And along with all of these is a silent assumption–that you should forgive the perpetrator, or negligent driver who left your son to his fate. We are taught that forgiveness is a virtue, or even that it is necessary in order to move to a place of “acceptance” regarding a traumatic loss like the one your family has suffered. Both, however, are at best half-truths.

In fact, forgiveness is a choice. We might well choose not to pardon someone who has done us and our loved one irreparable harm; we can continue to hold them accountable for their actions and inactions. Whether or not the justice system doles out appropriate punishment, it is our option to continue to find them guilty of serious wrongdoing. And taking this stance does not necessarily lead to simmering, impotent rage of a kind that undermines one’s life–indeed, it can give rise to meaningful social action to stiffen sentences for impaired drivers, as in the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) or to curb gun violence, as through the advocacy work of Parents of Murdered Children. Finding a constructive outlet for legitimate anger can in this sense make the world a safer and more just place, perhaps by joining campaigns to educate young people on the risks of substance abuse, if this was involved in your son’s dying. Finding purpose in the pain can be one way of seeking meaning in a meaningless loss. Perhaps you have already taken steps in this direction by your decision to allow your son to give the gift of life to five people who greatly needed it.

On the other hand, you can also choose to forgive, though not to condone. This path meets with its own challenges, one of which is our understandably righteous resistance to really step into the mindset, emotions and circumstances of the guilty party. How much experience did he or she have with such an emergency? What role might substance use have played in blurring his or her judgment? What powerful emotions–of fear, anger or personal liability–might have led to an impulsive and tragic decision? None of these questions exonerates this person’s actions, but especially if he or she was young and overwhelmed, they might call up an attitude that contains elements of compassion as well as rage.

Finally, it is worth asking oneself honestly: What would be more vivid for me if the anger I feel were reduced or released? Sometimes anger can be adaptive in the sense that it protects us from a deeper hurt, such as powerlessness, abject grief, or self-blame. Being ready to deal with these primary feelings may be a necessary part of considering forgiveness as an option.

–Dr. Neimeyer

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