Forgiveness is more than just words, it's feelings. Learning how to forgive others can help us in our cancer journey as well.
I start by saying I am not sure forgiveness can be taught. Sure, you can tell someone you are sorry for something you did or said and hear them say back that they forgive you. Yes, the people in this scenario are actively trying to rectify the situation, but there is sometimes something missing in those words and actions: feeling. That, to me, is what cannot be taught within forgiveness. The feelings behind forgiveness are so much greater. You either feel the presence behind the words of saying “I am sorry” to someone (or even yourself, for that matter) or you don't.
So, how does forgiveness work itself into the cancer realm? Like with many other survivors, no one could pinpoint specifically why I got cancer. For the most part, I took care of myself. Was I perfect? Oh, how I wish. I ate my share of junk food, enjoyed a few alcoholic beverages now and then, and worked out, but wouldn't call myself rigorously active. I was also not a smoker. One of my favorite people in the entire world was a hardcore smoker and said undoubtedly that she would never quit. She didn't care what the situation was. Quitting was not an option to her. That pained me to no end because deep down, I knew where that decision would ultimately lead. And, after time, I was proven correct on that thought.
After I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32, I really thought my aunt would quit her smoking habit. After all, her favorite (I like to brag) and only niece was diagnosed with cancer. I thought for sure that on the day I shared my diagnosis, she'd declare she would immediately become smoke-free. I could almost sense the excitement. It might seem odd, but I felt I had little else going for me at that moment, as I was just told I had cancer after all. Imagine my disappointment when she all but said that her niece's cancer diagnosis would not change her smoking habit at all. Dumbfounded, I buried my hurt and despair at this revelation and focused on my treatment and getting better.
Two years later, my aunt was diagnosed with lung cancer that would ultimately take her life within five months of diagnosis. She went through her end-of-life journey with more grace and courage than anyone I have ever seen. She knew her decisions. She knew they had led to that path. She knew. I was there with her every step of the way. I never ended up talking about my feelings of hurt and anger. I never shared how sad I was that my hopes of her quitting smoking after I was diagnosed with cancer were deflated every time she reached for a cigarette. Aside from never sharing my feelings with her while she was alive, I never shared my forgiveness either. I kept those emotions bottled up and kept the blame on her for her death long after she took her last breath. I could easily have said that I forgave her for her actions. However, at that point, they just would have been words with no emotions or feelings behind them.
It was six years ago this month that my aunt passed. I visit her grave with my family when I can, but not as much as I would like. We reminisce and think of her often, especially as the holidays approach. We tell stories and laugh at all the amazing times with her. However, not once have I shared my sorrow of lack of forgiveness with anyone in my family, especially my aunt. It's haunted me for years. Here I am, the cancer survivor, blaming a cancer victim for the actions which ultimately took her from me. I was tired of it. I wanted to talk it through. As I sat at her grave site by myself, I reflected on our times together and smiled. I pictured myself opening up and telling her my thoughts on forgiveness and my lack of acceptance of her actions that she had made clear she was fine with. As I sat, the amount of emotions building up was almost too much to bear. I had really never felt that way before. And that's how I knew it was time and it was OK. She knew, and I knew. We both hugged acceptance as I whispered, “I forgive us.”