Why can’t I forgive and forget?

One day, a woman in her early-40s I’ll call Rosemary came to see me. She told me that she had recently lost her husband (also in his early-40s) to liver disease which he had contracted after a lifetime of excessive drinking. She said that when he was sober he was really a sweet guy, loving and attentive to her and their three children aged twelve, fourteen, and sixteen. But, although he never physically abused them, when he was drunk he ranted and raved about the weather, politics, sports, whatever, in a way that she and the children all found upsetting at home, and embarrassing in public. Rosemary said that she hadn’t left him because, in his sober times, he was such a loving husband and father. He had never been able to admit that he had a drinking problem which needed outside help. He claimed small-minded people just got upset when he honestly spoke his mind! In the end, as hard as it was to admit, she admitted that she had almost been relieved when he died. At that time, she finally realized how deeply stressed she had felt all those years married to him while trying to live with all his angry outbursts when he was drinking. Now, after his death at a relatively early age, she felt emotionally exhausted with the prospect of raising their three teenagers by herself. Her close friends kept telling her that she needed to “just let it go” now so she could have the strength to move on with her life. But she discovered that she couldn’t just forgive her husband for all the years of his drinking to excess which had caused so much emotional upset to her and the children, not to mention his painful death at an early age. Her deep anger and resentment made it impossible to just “forgive and forget”. She said she felt trapped in her intense anger and resentment, and even worried that it meant that she might never be able to truly get on with her life as a now-single mother.

Many people who are trying to come to terms with the death of a spouse at the end of a “wounded” marriage wonder why they cannot just forgive and forget so that they can finally be free to get on with their lives. They feel mired in a swamp of bitter anger and resentment. And just when such feelings seem to be lessening, they can suddenly return as strong as ever in the wake of some reminder of the past relationship. The reminder may be seeing an old photo, hearing a favorite song, finding oneself in a place of shared memories, or any random occurrence.

First of all, the sign of forgiveness is not a feeling of peace or tranquility but rather forgiveness is a decision to forgive someone in spite of, perhaps, intense feelings of grief, anger, or resentment. This forgiving is usually something one needs to do in regard to the offending one as well for oneself. How could one’s former spouse have kept doing something, whether on purpose or not, which one found so painful? On the other hand, why couldn’t one have done more to the problem? Questions like these can continue to bombard one for years after the death of a spouse who, frustratingly, is now beyond reaching to deal with any of this! That is why in such a situation, one needs, in the end, to forgive both the deceased spouse and oneself because no one can move on with one’s life in a healthy healing way unless one decides to forgive.

As for intense feelings of grief or anger or resentment which remain after one makes a conscious decision to forgive, such feelings tend to lessen, but in any case they can only heal from the inside. Any healing process takes time, and it does one no good to attempt to place a mental stopwatch on the healing process. Comments about how “one should be beyond all this by now’ are not helpful at all, whether they come from well-meaning people or oneself. But every time we consciously choose to forgive (and re-forgive) another or oneself, whatever our feelings, we open our heart to further inner healing. Forgetting, as such, is not something we can choose to do, but inner healing arising from one’s repeated decision to forgive can ease the burden of painful memories associated with the end in death of a “wounded” marriage.

Rosemary replied that she had never thought of forgiveness as a decision in spite of intense feelings of grief or anger. Moreover, it seemed that she had always heard forgiving and forgetting linked together as if forgetting were the true sign that one had truly forgiven. She said she felt relieved to discover that the one did not imply the other at all. At the end of our conversation, Rosemary smiled and said she believed that she now saw a doorway through which she move to begin her path to some kind of inner healing. I assured her of my prayerful support of her on that journey.