“Eventually, you will forgive him,” a friend once told me, “not for him, but for you.” I was in college, and the “him” she referred to was my grandfather, the man who molested me when I was seven. Her words sounded noble, but I didn’t believe them. A hard kernel of anger and grief lived inside my heart.
Fifteen years later, my husband and I were attending services on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. The rabbi spoke about forgiveness for those who have committed terrible wrongs. I had done years of therapy and worked through much of my anger and shame, but forgiveness still eluded me. Then the rabbi told us this story:
One man murdered another. He was convicted and sentenced to death. The mother of the murdered man went to visit the felon on death row. She asked him why he had killed her son. He didn’t have a reason. She asked him about his life, and then she told him about her son. She visited him often, until she found herself feeling compassion for this deeply wounded soul whose life was about to end. She forgave him.
After the story, the congregation seemed to hold its breath. I wondered how this kind of forgiveness was possible, and why I couldn’t get there. The rabbi asked us to stand for the kaddish, the prayer we recite for those who have died, to lift their spirits closer to God. “Tonight,” he said, “I ask you to say kaddish not only for your loved ones, but also for the dead places within yourself.”
I began to recite the prayer, and I saw the dead places inside me receiving light. A sharp pain shot through my chest—the hard kernel of grief in my heart finally cracked and splintered into pieces. I saw my grandfather as a child, abused and neglected, and I found myself saying kaddish for the dead places inside him, too, even though he was still living.
Choking sobs emerged from my chest. My husband placed a hand on my back to remind me that I was not alone. In that small act of kindness, I felt a rush of love for him, then for the hurt child inside myself, and finally for my grandfather. In that moment, I realized I no longer had room inside me for anger or hate. The perception that I was a victim shifted. I saw myself as a vessel worthy of carrying a spark of the Divine essence, the Divine light. I looked around me and saw that spark in every person, even my grandfather, beneath his numbness.
I’ve learned that forgiveness is a process, something I work on a little each day. I continue to say kaddish for the dead places in my grandfather. I finally understand what it means to forgive, not for him, but for me. I believe in forgiveness through compassion, and that compassion must begin with myself.
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