By Dave Roberts
There would be no peace for me, no life for me until I learned to forgive life for what it had done to me, forgive others for still being alive, and eventually forgive myself for being alive.
I stumbled across this passage recently in Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road by Neil Peart. Peart, best known as the lyricist and drummer for the Canadian rock band Rush, wrote Ghost Rider following the deaths of his daughter Selena and common law wife Jackie in 1997 and 1998 respectively.
Ghost Rider describes Peart’s fourteen-month road trip on his motorcycle, to discover a reason to live, in the aftermath of catastrophic loss. His thoughts on forgiveness motivated me to reflect on the role that it played in my transformation of self, following the death of my eighteen-year-old daughter Jeannine in March of 2003. During my own challenges with forgiveness after Jeannine’s death, it was always about forgiving my own self, as well as, others. I never thought about letting life off of the hook for the hand of cards that I was dealt.
I also began to ponder why forgiveness of self, others, and life itself, is so difficult to achieve after a catastrophic loss. My inability to forgive myself for several years after Jeannine’s death was due in part, to my perceived role of needing to be the father-protector. Jeannine died of an incurable and rare form of cancer. Though her disease was beyond my control, my inability to think clearly during early grief convinced me that I should have seen the signs of her cancer earlier, and perhaps convinced her to engage in clinical trials that could have prolonged her life. I may have also become tethered to the notion that forgiving myself would mean that I would stop remembering my daughter. In some strange way then, my inability to forgive myself kept me tied to memories of my daughter and the life that I had with her.
In the sixteenth year following the death of my daughter, I have come to the realization that there was nothing that I could have done to prevent Jeannine’s illness and death and that I did the best that I could do in the midst of the chaos and adversity that accompanied it. I also came to terms with my own guilt for being alive in a world where Jeannine wasn’t and have embraced opportunities to help others while maintaining the continued spiritual bond with Jeannine. In essence, I was able to forgive myself for being alive.
As someone who is in a perpetual state of learning and self-reflection, I decided to examine my experience with forgiveness using the remaining two components of Neil Peart’s definition.
In each category, I have listed one thing that I have chosen to forgive as well as the process that I went through to achieve peace.
Forgive Life for What it Had Done to Me
• Taking my father away from me at age 5; leaving me to be raised as an only child.
My father abandoned my mother and me without warning, never to be seen or heard from again. For many years, I was angry because I grew up without a father. However, in recent years, I understood that my father’s act of abandonment was an act of love. He left because he could not thrive in a traditional marriage and knew that he would interfere with me and my mother’s attempt to thrive. In order to forgive life for taking my father from me, I needed to, among other things, embrace the medicine of crow who encourages us to “shapeshift that old reality and become your future self”. Crow medicine helped me to ultimately embrace a transformed and peaceful perspective about my father’s decision to leave.
Forgive Others for Being Alive
• There were a number of times during the early phase of my grief following Jeannine’s death, that questioned why others of questionable character were allowed to continue to exist on earth, while my daughter’s life was cut short.
The process of comparing the worthiness of others to my daughter was a product of the emotional pain that I experienced due to her death and part of the process that I needed to go through to ultimately accept my new reality. Through the influence of several wise spiritual mentors and the work of Debbie Ford, I discovered that everyone we judge to be less than worthy in comparison to our deceased loved ones, are in service to us even if it is just to remind us that we never want to embrace the path that they are choosing to travel.
Not everyone who faces challenges after loss-are wired to effectively process forgiveness cognitively. Neil Peart forged his path to forgiveness after loss through movement and motion. Others may find it through creative means such as art or poetry. The tools used on the road to forgiveness are tailored to the capabilities of those who travel it.
From my perspective, committing to service to others in honor of our deceased loved ones transcends the need to engage in a conscious self-inventory of who and what we need to forgive.
Once we embrace service in honor of our deceased loved ones, Divine Law comes into play. According to Jamie Sams, Divine Law is:
“Honoring harmony that comes from a peaceful mind, an open heart, a true tongue, a light step, a forgiving nature, and love of all living creatures.
Dave Roberts, LMSW is a retired addiction professional and an adjunct professor of psychology at Utica College. He is a past HuffPost contributor and a speaker on grief and loss locally and nationally. Dave is also the chapter leader for The Compassionate Friends of the Mohawk Valley. Dave may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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