What happens when you can’t forgive yourself?
There’s a school of thought that says that forgiveness is an important part of healing. That letting go of anger, resentment, hate and other negative emotions is necessary to move past the offense that caused the negative emotions in the first place. That it’s something one does for oneself, rather than for the offender, and doesn’t mean you must forget the offense, or reconcile with the offender.
I don’t buy this. I believe that there are some things that are unforgivable. Forgiveness is something that has to be asked for by the offender, and that it’s my choice if I want to give it. I can choose not to forgive without letting anger, hate or other negative emotions run my life. Maybe that’s the difference; I don’t need to forgive in order to heal or move past something. But I’ve experienced deep betrayals and things like sexual assault in my life, and I do not forgive or forget the perpetrators.
It might be because in general, there’s always a part of me that stands outside, analyzing. I’m biased towards fairness rather than making people feel better. Emotions are just one piece of the equation that must be balanced in terms of what is just. That has always given me a reputation for coldness, but I’ve been this way ever since I can remember. One benefit, though, is that I can analyze and judge and not forgive someone without needing to actively hold on to hate or anger—in fact, the end result is that I tend not to waste any emotional energy on them at all.
But what if the person who doesn’t deserve forgiveness is … me? The closer I get to the first anniversary of my son’s death, the more I think about what happened—what I did, what I didn’t do, how I failed. I know if I were talking to a friend in my situation, I would tell them that you cannot control every minute of a 10-year-old’s life. That even children have interior lives we cannot know. That I did the best I could with what I knew, what medical professionals and therapists told me, and what was reasonable to expect. That it really was just a tragic accident.
I tell this and more to my husband, over and over, and I truly mean it. I tell it to myself, and I know it’s true. But all of the could haves, and would haves, and should haves, and only knowing what I knew, and doing My Very Best don’t change the fact that my son died. That he somehow figured out how to do what he did, and felt curious enough or compelled to do it.
It doesn’t change that fact that I failed at the one thing we are supposed to do as parents—keep them safe. All the love in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t do this one fundamental thing. That’s just the cold equation, and it doesn’t add up to forgiveness for me, ever.
Yet, I have to continue on. I have a husband I love and who needs me. I have two living children who need a mom to keep on doing the best I can, poor parenting that it’s proven to be. I have family and friends and neighbors who have covered our family in love in a completely undeserved outpouring of grace.
I know each and every one of them forgives me. But I cannot forgive myself. Maybe living with that is punishment enough.