Forgiveness, a Key to Healing
Author: Andrea Hug
Allowing peace into your life
He died at the hand of another and I was left to raise our three small children alone. Chris was my husband, my best friend, and my soul mate. Simply put he was everything to me, and instantly I felt as if I had nothing. How could I go on?
Chris, an avid cyclist, had gone out for a bicycle ride down a country road in the late afternoon on August 1, 1993 and was struck from behind by a man driving while intoxicated. Before he left, I had kissed him twice—one kiss for him, one kiss for me—until we met again. But he never returned.
Less than 24 hours later, I stood alone in my kitchen listening to the voices from the dining room. The tone and the words and the cadence betrayed the anger that an unjust, premature death stirs. If left unchecked, that anger could set the tone for the rest of my life, my children’s lives, and for everyone who knew and loved Chris. I asked myself again, “How can I go on?”
My husband’s legacy was love, care, and compassion. I understood that about Chris the moment I met him, and I wanted to honor that legacy. What was happening at my dining room table was not consistent with his legacy. In that moment I made a decision that affected every moment of my life and the lives of my children since then: I decided to forgive the man who killed Chris.
I took a deep breath and walked into the dining room. The conversation stopped and everyone looked up at me. The only sound in the room came from the family room where my daughters were watching cartoons as they munched their Cheerios. I began slowly, uncertain about what I would say.
I acknowledged the enormity of the loss we faced and how much we would need each other as we moved forward. I honored the love we all felt for Chris and the relationship that we each had with him. And then I said, “I know you’re angry and I cannot and will not take that away from you. But if we speak mean, hateful words, the children will learn to be mean and hateful. Chris would not have wanted that. He was kind and loving. He wanted kindness and love for his children, and so do I. But if we speak the natural anger we feel in their presence we destroy his legacy for them. And so I’m asking you not to say those kinds of things around our children. They need you. And they need to hear from you how much they are loved, because Chris is not here to say that to them anymore, and I can only do so much. I need your help.”
As the words tumbled out of my mouth I immediately felt their importance. I knew they could direct my path and help me make decisions that honored Chris’s life and gave hope to our children. That morning at the dining room table was a pivotal moment in my grief. It required me to make a decision to forgive, and it offered an option that released my family from the trap of bitterness.
Anger is a reaction that surfaces immediately when something unjust happens. When a loved one dies, anger is a natural emotion that surges from within us regardless of the cause of death. We can feel anger toward the one who caused the death, at God for allowing it, at ourselves for our inability to prevent it, or even at our loved one for putting himself in harm’s way. And when we are ready, we can choose our response. I humbly suggest that forgiveness might be an option to consider.
According to the Mayo clinic, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge. The act that hurt or offended you may always remain a part of your life, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help you focus on other, positive parts of your life. Forgiveness doesn't mean that you deny the other person's responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn't minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive a person without excusing the act. The forgiveness brings a measure of peace that helps you go on with life.
Although forgiveness is a concept that is often attributed to religious experiences, it can also be considered from the standpoint of its psychological implications. Deciding whether or not to forgive is a cognitive process that requires a person to make a choice and then act on that decision. When a loved one is harmed, a natural response is revenge. An injustice occurred, and punishment is an appropriate response. But even as you experience the effect of that harm you can make a choice that gives life rather than denies it. You can choose: “I will forgive.” Forgiving offers freedom that ultimately allows you to absorb the pain of that inflicted harm. Though it is a relatively simple concept, it is not necessarily easy to do. Regardless of the difficulty, it is worth doing.
As humans with the ability to reason, we start with a decision but equally important is acknowledging our pain. Naming our sorrow and identifying exactly what we need to forgive starts the process. For some, the phrase, “forgive and forget” implies a “shut up and get over it” feeling that denies a survivor’s pain. I do not advocate that kind of forgiveness because it causes more harm than good. A survivor has already had enough pain. They deserve to have their story heard by someone who cares and offers permission to feel the pain. Sharing our story deepens our understanding of our loss and ultimately allows the pain to dissipate. We can find a good counselor who can help us through this process or journal to pour out the poison. As we process our need to forgive and voice our pain, not only will the bitterness decrease but studies show that we also decrease stress and depression, lower our blood pressure, and experience healthier relationships while increasing compassion and inner peace.
I know from my own experience that forgiveness began when I stood in the dining room and looked at the faces around the table. I knew that the bitterness would harm me. I knew it would harm my children. Their father’s death already caused more heartache than any child deserved. Adding to that grief by feeding my anger seemed like a terrible choice. So instead, I chose to allow myself to consider the possibility of forgiveness. That is when the true work began.
Every time the anger came up, I tried to follow it with an internal mantra that said, “I choose to forgive.” Whether I stood at the gas pump and filled my tank (a task I never did before Chris died) or got up with a sick child for the 14th time in one night, I reminded myself of my decision to forgive. In addition, I told my story of pain, loss, and sorrow to a companion who honored the immensity of the experience. I worked hard at reconciling a grief so profound and so devastating in order to honor my husband and his life.
Working toward forgiveness became a daily process that I remained faithful to because I love: I love my children, I love my husband, and I love my life. It has been 17 years since I stood in my kitchen so soon after Chris died. I’ve repeated the forgiveness mantra too many times to count. I have told the story over and over and over. I have journaled and prayed. It has taken time, but slowly, as my grief eased, so did my anger. Forgiveness started to come easier, and I faced the days finding more joy than sorrow.
My children are nearly grown and they know the value of forgiveness because they saw it in me, chose it, and lived it for themselves. They are healthy, happy young adults who have hope and joy instead of anger and bitterness. It is possible, but only because we worked hard at it and decided to choose forgiveness. I hope you will too.
By Andrea Hug, MaPC, MPS, LCPC: Andrea Hug is the surviving spouse of Lieutenant Christian A. Hug, USNR, a search and rescue helicopter pilot who died in 1993. She holds master's degrees in both Pastoral Counseling and Pastoral Studies from Loyola University in Chicago, and is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. She worked for two years with TAPS Adult Survivor Care Team, having spent the previous six years working in hospice with young surviving widows and children.