The unforgiveables

January 18, 2011

It’s been over two years.

I’ve changed a lot since those first days when I was one raw and howling ache, desperately repeating “I want you back.”  And while I will always want you back, my Huckleberry, my Teddy, I seem to be bearing your absence with more equanimity these days.  Well, mostly.  I think I have something resembling perspective.  It’s a young perspective  – assuming I don’t die early (a big assumption, I know), I have years and years and years to live without my firstborn – but it’s still perspective.

Sometimes the blogosphere really does seem to be speaking in the most unexpected harmonies.  Tash is posting at Glow in the Woods about correspondence, about writing to address the kinds of hurts inflicted on the grieving by friends, family, coworkers, medical professionals, etc.  Angie, at Still Life with Circles has a really lovely post about learning to see herself as a child while she parents her daughter and about working to forgive herself and her body.  And Mel, at Stirrup Queens has a fascinating and wonderful thread of comments going about childhood exclusions with her Exclusion Project. As I read and posted comments in these places, I realized my perspective has changed in some ways, and not in others, and I also realized that I’m not as good at forgiveness as I’d like to think.

Forgiveness is a tricky concept.  I remember seeing it as a topic on Oprah (who still talks about it a lot), remember it emerging into popular discussion as more of a secular than a religious concept.  Forgiving is supposed to be good for us.  In a recent conversation with my mom, she said that forgiveness is a gift and a release to the person who does the forgiving, even if the person being forgiven isn’t involved in the forgiveness process.  This seems to be the popular take on forgiveness.  We do it because it’s a release.  Because it keeps our souls from getting bogged down in resentment.  Because it’s good for us.

But I was raised (and Sunday-schooled, and confirmed) in a church that made it very clear that God forgave us out of love and that this was a great benefit to us.  It definitely wasn’t something God was doing because it was good for God, and it clearly involved repentance on the part of the forgivees.  So the idea of forgiving people because it’s good for me seems a bit watery and de-fanged, somehow, even though it’s attractive.  I feel like there should be more to it than that.  Maybe I’m so bad at forgiving because I feel there should be more to it than that.  Maybe forgiveness, human forgiveness, is really an entirely different creature from religious forgiveness, and my problem is that I’ve been trying to use God for a role model.

In this case, I think God is a bad role model.  If I wait around for the people who’ve hurt me to repent, I will end up holding too many grudges to count.  And I want to get better at forgiveness.  I want this especially because it’s so much easier now to give it away cheaply, to the people I don’t care about that much, and this seems very wrong to me.

It’s the people I love that I haven’t forgiven.  Somehow I find it easier to forgive people I barely know – the doctors who said unfortunate things, that damned hospitalist who didn’t read my chart, the poor receptionist who greeted me on the way out of my postpartum appointment with “Haven’t you had that baby yet?” (Yeah, she’s never going to ask another woman that question again, not after I burst into tears like that.)

But it’s the people I love, who are dear to me, whom I admire and trust and respect, who’ve managed to make it onto my list of unforgiveables.

My best friend from high school (and before, and after), who ditched me as I waited to walk with her to the first day of classes our senior year.  She took a ride with the reigning social elite, leaving me to stare at her driving by my house and knowing I’d be walking alone.  I can see where it would have been really hard to turn that ride down.  Plus, we were high-schoolers and high-schoolers have been known to do stupid shit like that.  But I keep thinking I’ve forgiven her and then I realize I haven’t.  This is probably a big part of why I made out with her ex-boyfriend in college, and, more sadly, probably part of why we aren’t as close as I’d like now.

I may never forgive my dad for telling me (through my mother) that I’d probably have more boyfriends if I lost weight.  I look back at my high school photos and see a girl who definitely wasn’t skinny but who wasn’t fat either, and I wish I could have been happy with what I had, which was good.  I want to yell, “I was fine! I was perfectly fine!” because I really was fine (except for the fluffy, spiral-permed hair, and even that wasn’t too awful).  I will probably never tell Dad what that one comment did to my self-esteem, because I don’t want to hurt him with it.  I know he said it out of concern and love for me, misguided as it was.  And even so, after years of love and support from him, I may never be able to put that memory away.

I am still working on forgiving my mother, who is one of my favorite people and with whom I’m very close, for saying “How will you afford it?” just after we found out about Teddy’s diaphragmatic hernia diagnosis.  I’m close to forgiveness.  I know she was in shock, too.  I know she’s the kind of person who feels more comfortable saying something than sitting in stunned silence.  And I know she still misses Teddy, along with me.  But I’m not there yet.  And I don’t know why, out of all the ridiculous things I’ve heard and experienced, that this small slip can still rankle.

Then there’s that “friend” who wrote to me about the people she knows who lost their first son and who recognized that it was part of God’s plan. (Nudge, nudge, Erica. Why can’t you be good like those people? Why can’t you just believe that God has a beautiful plan that involves the death of your son and look forward to seeing heaven already?) Her I may never forgive, but I feel less bad about that, maybe because she’s so certain and safe in her own little world, so very far from mine, that not forgiving her won’t affect our relationship at all.

I want to get better at forgiveness because I dream of some day forgiving myself, too.  Forgiving myself for not forgiving easily, for not seeing and knowing clearly that I was fine in high school, for not being able to tell the people I love when they hurt me, for not being able to tell the people I don’t especially love to go to hell.  I want to be able to forgive myself for not always living up to my potential, for hiding in fear instead of taking action, for all the times when I gave up on myself. And yes, I still want to forgive myself for letting my baby die, for not being able to save him. Because as little sense as it makes medically, that one still tops my list of unforgiveables.

How do you think of forgiveness? And what are your unforgiveables?





  1. Thanks for writing this. It is beautiful and so well thought out. It has helped me realize a lot of thoughts I have spinning through my head most days.

  2. Interesting post dear.

    Remembering sweet Teddy with you….

  3. I must let these thoughts tumble over for awhile. I see a lot of posts lately about forgiving or speaking up regarding the people who hurt us either just before or after our child’s death. I have a few thoughts on the matter, but I’m still deciding what I want to say. Interesting post though.

  4. Sometimes I wonder if I get my forgiveness a little muddled with tiredness. Because holding a grudge is tiring and it is easier to simply let it slide. So I haven’t truly forgiven people so much as given up being angry? Or just given them up and decided to just ignore them? Not quite the same thing. Far less worthy I fear. Lazy.

    I think my unforgiveables are a couple of friends who I thought cared about me and who I have never really heard from again since G died. But perhaps I can understand why that happened although it still saddens me. And yes, I also have the starring role at the top of my own list, for letting her die somehow.

    I’m sorry for what your Dad said and the effect it had on your self-esteem. That one would have upset me too. And gosh, the only father I know who was concerned rather than pleased about a more restrained number of boyfriends!

    And the friend with the ‘God’s plan’ spiel. As you say, it is hard to start to forgive someone whose world view is so very different.

    Thank you for a really interesting post. xo

    • I can relate to this, Catherine. I found, especially early on, that I just didn’t have the energy to be really angry or to hold on to it.

      I really resented being told, upon announcing my pregnancy with Kathleen and saying that we had new hope, that if I turned my hope into faith I’d get the healthy baby I deserved. I don’t the know the person who said this well, so it didn’t ruin a relationship, but I remember wanting to reach through the computer and throttle her.

  5. i tend to hold grudges about the smallest things, it’s rather silly and i don’t know why. i also keep a lot in and am not one to say “you really hurt me when you…” i don’t know how to forgive completely, or maybe it’s forgiving that i can do but not the forgetting, i have a hard time breaking the 2 apart.

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