The fact that I was unable to keep my son alive weighs heavy on me. I knew Brady was at risk for suicide because he’d had a previous attempt. The three mental health professionals treating him agreed that he needed to go into a residential mental health treatment center. One of them said flatly, “If you don’t, you’re going to have a dead kid.”
For a variety of reasons that sounded good at the time, I, along with his mother, decided we would not do that. We’d keep him home and send him to intensive outpatient therapy. A month later, he was dead. His death happened at my home, while he was under my direct care and supervision.
I struggle to deal with this. Recently, I have gotten some comfort from thinking that, while it is apparently true that I made an extremely poor choice when faced with perhaps the most important decision of my life, it is also true that I am a human with limited information and understanding.
There is no question that I did the absolute best I could to help my son, with all the love and attention and energy I could muster. The fact that I failed is a reflection of the reality that I cannot control what goes on. I can do my best, and what happens happens.
Basically, I try to forgive myself. Other people have indicated that they have no problem forgiving me. Some say they would have made the same decision under similar circumstances. I find the compassion and forgiveness they offer me to be soothing. I am still pretty sure that unless I can find a way to forgive myself more completely, the rest of my life is going to be very unpleasant indeed.
With all this in mind, when performing my regular morning check of grief research I was interested to see a just-out study that examined self-compassion.
This study from the European Journal of Psychotraumatology focused on the role of rumination among people who had relatives who had gone missing. (Rumination is repetitive thinking as described in this post: When Thinking In Circles Can Actually Help (And When It May Not).)
The Dutch researchers guessed that the ambiguous loss experienced by relatives of missing persons might increase the risk of posttraumatic stress (PTS), prolonged grief (PG) and depression. They suspected that more ruminative thinking about the loss might lead to poorer outcomes for survivors. On forgiveness they said:
“A potential protective factor is self-compassion, referring to openness toward and acceptance of one’s own pain, failures, and inadequacies. One could reason that self-compassion is associated with lower levels of emotional distress following ambiguous loss, because it might serve as a buffer for getting entangled in ruminative thinking about the causes and consequences of the disappearance (‘grief rumination’).”
Basically, they suspected that self-compassion — which sounds the same as self-forgiveness — was likely to help with grief. The research was supposed to see if that was so.
The study looked at 137 relatives of long-term missing persons. Using self-reports, research measured each survivor’s levels of self-compassion, grief rumination, prolonged grief, depression, and posttraumatic stress. Then they analyzed the results to try to tease out the effects of self-compassion and rumination. They found:
“Self-compassion was significantly, negatively, and moderately associated with PG, depression, and PTS levels,” they reported. In plain English, being compassionate toward yourself — including forgiving yourself for your failures — appears to make it less likely you will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, prolonged grief and depression after a loss.
Being compassionate toward yourself — including forgiving yourself for your failures — appears to make it less likely you will suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, prolonged grief and depression after a loss.
They also found that people who showed more self-compassion did less ruminative thinking about the loss. And they suggested that mindfulness training could help strengthen this beneficial self-compassionate attitude.
More Forgiveness Research
After spotting these findings on self-compassion, I looked for more research on forgiveness and grief. I found a 2017 study published in Omega, a leading grief research journal, titled “Mothers’ Grief, Forgiveness and Posttraumatic Growth After the Loss of a Child.”
For this one the researchers gave 60 Slovakian bereaved mothers grief assessments similar to the ones described in this post: Yes, You Can Measure Grief and Here’s How. Posttraumatic growth was assessed with the Posttraumatic Growth Inventory,
To assess the mothers’ forgiveness they used the Enright Forgiveness Inventory. This is described as a 60-question assessment of “the degree to which a person forgives another person, group or entity that has hurt him or her deeply and unfairly.”
Here’s what the study found:
“The results showed a negative association between forgiveness and grief and a strong positive association between forgiveness and posttraumatic growth, which was not moderated by the time elapsed since the loss.”
Translated into English, this means that the researchers found that mothers who forgave suffered less from grief and had more posttraumatic growth. And this didn’t depend on how long it had been since the death.
Mothers who forgave suffered less from grief and had more posttraumatic growth.
According to the researchers, this applies to the mothers forgiving themselves as well as forgiving someone else. So that’s another study suggesting self-forgiveness is likely to be helpful. There’s more.
A 2014 study from the Death Studies journal has the poetic title: Let me hear of your mercy in the mourning: forgiveness, grief, and continuing bonds. This is a play on a Psalm, number 143:8, with the difference that the Bible verse is referring to before noon, not after death.
After that beginning, like most research studies this one plunged into a thicket of arcane statistical concepts and psychological terms that can be hard for a layperson like me to decipher. However, as near as I can tell, the results suggested that those who scored high on forgiveness also tended to score low on symptoms of prolonged grief.
Those who scored high on forgiveness also tended to score low on symptoms of prolonged grief
These researchers defined forgiveness as getting rid of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors directed at an offender and developing positive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors directed at this same person. They added, “It is not the same as pseudoforgiveness, which is minimizing or denying the hurt.”
So that gives us some idea of what helpful forgiveness might look like. It’s not claiming you don’t hurt. It’s just not blaming someone else or yourself for what happened.
The authors also suggested some ways to boost forgiveness. The first they mentioned was, again, mindfulness.
They also suggested something called a reverse empty-chair exercise. The empty-chair exercise is from gestalt therapy. The patient (you) sits across from an empty chair and imagines someone — in this case, the lost loved one — is sitting there. Then you engage in a dialogue with the imaginary person. In a reverse exercise, you would play the role of your lost loved one and talk to yourself.
This might be helpful. I’m pretty sure Brady would tell me he forgives me, and that would likely ease my mind a good bit.
Grief Coping and Self-Forgiveness
All told, it seems likely to me that if I pursue self-forgiveness I am more likely to return to feeling like living sooner than otherwise, and with less suffering along the way. I am already practicing mindfulness by meditating daily. Perhaps I will try the reverse empty-chair exercise.
As always, I am reporting on my experience looking for evidence-based bereavement grief coping strategies. I do not intend to suggest that anyone must or should implement self-forgiveness, mindfulness or any other strategy. It’s just something you could think about, if you’re of a mind to. If not, that is fine with me. Different strokes for different folks.
Thanks for reading, liking, commenting, sharing and following Grieve Well. I am sorry for the losses that brought you here. And I hope you get some peace today.