Choosing to Forgive


In her recent novel for young adults, Goodbye, Mr Hitler, Jackie French explores the theme of ‘forgiveness.’ She says,

“Forgiveness can be the hardest thing in the world. But it must be done, for your own sake, as well as for your family, and the world, even if it must be done again every day of life. You must forgive.”

Jackie French

Ten-year-old Johannes Wolcheki is living a wealthy and comfortable life. His parents, Mutti and Vati, are both doctors and manage a hospital.

One day in 1944 Vati doesn’t come home. When Mutti investigates she’s told to pack and join him in a new hospital in Germany. She and Johannes are not offered a car or bus but are forced into a cattle train and transported to Auschwitz.

Johannes soon realises Hitler is not the courageous and determined leader he was told but rather the author of this horror and madness. He calls Hitler an Ogre and imagines himself living in the belly of an Ogre.

While held captive in the concentration camp Johannes is given dry bread and a lukewarm liquid that reminds him of vomit. His future looks bleak when he and many other children are sent into the snow and then washed in freezing water to hasten their deaths. Johannes is one of a handful who survives the ordeal, their skeletal bodies gathered up and deposited at a hospital.

This is but one chapter in his remarkable story of courage and determination.

Life is filled with uncertainty.

We never know what awaits us around the corner. Like Johannes, our comfortable, secure existence might be torn apart. We may face challenges we feel ill-equipped to handle. We may feel alone and desolate. We may long for the past and a return to safety and normality.

People who lose a loved one to suicide have their lives turned upside down. Nothing makes sense anymore. They feel cast adrift with nothing to hang on to. There is uncertainty and insecurity and frailty. It is not a place of their choosing. It is unfamiliar territory, a strange land.

Survivors of suicide loss need to avoid running from the past or fighting against their present pain. Nothing will erase the suffering and nothing will vanquish the loss.

Suicide is a traumatic event. Those who live in its shadow need to practice the work of not pushing their feelings away, no matter how painful. They need to relive the pain. They must learn to master it. They must learn to forgive it all. It has been said,

“You can’t heal what you can’t feel.”

When life treats you unfairly or you experience an unspeakable tragedy it is tempting to look for someone or something to blame. Blaming makes life more bearable. It’s a way of shifting responsibility.

Johannes had every reason to feel anger and hatred toward the Ogre who had taken his life away and swallowed his freedom and innocence. He could have become enslaved to his pain and a prisoner to his past.

But he chose to accept responsibility for his own well-being. He chose to own the past; the memories, the loss, the suffering, the fear. He discovered that to heal, he must embrace the dark; to forgive, he must endeavour to understand.

Jackie French writes,

“When the ogre has been vanquished, sit down upon the quiet earth and try to understand the ogre’s anguish and his twisted fear. Only by understanding can we stop them rising in our midst. When you understand forgive. And then stand up, and live.”

Author Ann Voskamp says,

“Forgiveness requires that I go into the past; that I relive histories again and again until I am able to release all wrongs wrought by the frail humanity of others.”

To forgive requires a willingness to excuse or pardon an error or offence. It is a letting go of resentment or thoughts of revenge. Forgiveness is releasing all that has hardened and constricted your heart.

Forgiveness is a path we must willingly choose. It is not something that can be demanded or forced upon us. It is our decision alone.

Those bereaved by suicide need to find forgiveness for their loved one:

  • Forgiving them for leaving without saying goodbye;
  • Forgiving them for not being able to see the world through their eyes;
  • Forgiving them for not asking for help.

They need to find forgiveness for the people they believe could have done more to support their loved one – friends and family, work colleagues, medical professionals, counsellors and support workers.

They need to find forgiveness for themselves:

  • For not appreciating the seriousness of the situation;
  • For lacking an understanding of the risk factors that contribute to suicidal thinking;
  • For failing to provide the care and support their loved one required;
  • For fixating on the choices they think they could or should have made.

Dr Edith Eger, a survivor of Auschwitz, says,

“How easily a life can become a litany of guilt and regret, a song that keeps echoing with the same chorus, with the inability to forgive ourselves.”

The present doesn’t diminish the past. Forgiveness is not about rewriting the past. Forgiveness is an effective way of dealing with the past.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or excusing the hurt done to you. Forgiveness acknowledges the wrong done, the abuse experienced. Forgiveness requires an acceptance of what happened and what didn’t happen.

It takes courage and strength to forgive. Forgiveness accepts and addresses the past but focuses on the future. When we forgive it opens the door to peace, hope, gratitude and joy.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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