Friday, September 25, 2015

Atonement and forgiveness

Yom Kippur was this week. For those who don't know, Yom Kippur is the Jewish Day of Atonement, the most holy of the Jewish holidays. It's a chance to recognize and atone for our sins throughout the year. It's a chance to acknowledge communally that we will fail but we can strive to live better lives. It's a chance to reach for forgiveness, to forgive those who have harmed us and to ask for forgiveness from those we have harmed.

I have struggled with guilt related to Kevin's illness and death. While I may know rationally that I did everything possible to help him, some part of me continues to wonder if I could have done just a little bit more. As time has passed and I've begun to heal, I've wrestled with guilt that I am living a good life without him. I am in the beginnings of a new relationship and that brings up more guilt, feelings that I am betraying Kevin.

I know none of this guilt and distress has basis in reality. I did everything possible to help him fight his cancer and then I did everything possible to give him a good death. He would want nothing less for me now than happiness, for me to find joy in my own life and with another. I know these things are all true. And yet I still feel conflicted that my life has gone on, as it should.

Part of what happens when we grieve is we want a reason for the loss, some kind of logical explanation. I found none but I kept looking and ended up trying to own some of it myself. While I suspect this was inevitable, it was and is fruitless. Holding onto guilt for his death will not help him. It will not help his kids nor will it help me. Life continues.

What I have found as an antidote to guilt is forgiveness. It's not a clear path and it's something I have to find my way toward over and over again, but forgiveness helps.

I've never been particularly angry with Kevin for getting cancer and dying. I know people who have been enraged with their dead spouse for leaving them; that's not my way. I have been angry with him for not going to the doctor sooner, when I was already afraid it was pancreatic cancer, four months before he was diagnosed. I have forgiven him that and all those small wounds we inflict on those we love. In forgiving him I can just love him. Relationships require us to for-give those we love, to acknowledge in advance that shit will happen and we still love them.

I've forgiven the doctor who laughed when I told her I was afraid it was pancreatic cancer. She said he was young and strong, that he didn't look like he had cancer, that he was clearly and accurately diagnosed with a different condition, highly treatable. I never want to see her again, but I decided I'd rather live in a world where people make honest mistakes than one in which the world is dictated by lawsuit driven caution and fear. Even had he been diagnosed that day, the outcome would have been no different. I have forgiven her and I hope like hell she learned something from this.

Most importantly, I am working on forgiving myself. Far too easily I find myself focusing on the stupid things I did, the times when I was impatient or inattentive or downright unpleasant. I think about what I could have done to make him more comfortable. I wonder if I should have put him in the car and driven down to Mexico for alternative treatment, even knowing the drive itself would have been too much. I castigate myself for the nights I didn't spend in the hospital when I know I was a comfort, even when I desperately needed the rest. None of this helps.

It is only when I forgive myself that I breath deeply enough to let the light in. Letting go of the guilt means there is more room for everything. If Kevin taught me nothing else he helped me understand that love is a basic part of my nature. It is a basic part of all our natures. When I forgive myself, for-give that I have made mistakes and will make more, I am more able to love the world, which I am coming to believe is one of the very best things I can do.

On Yom Kippur this year I sat by the ocean and watched the waves roll in and out. I thought about love and forgiveness. I tracked pelicans as they soared low over the water and thought of how life and death are everywhere, visible or not.

I have atoned for Kevin's death enough, an atonement he never would have wanted in the first place. While I will never stop missing him (I still talk to him all the time) I would rather find ways to dwell in love and celebrate his life, my life, the world. He would want nothing less, as would I had I been the one who died. I would rather live in the world with possibility, as flawed as it and I may be.

May the new year bring you light and peace and forgiveness and love.

(c)2015 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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