Making Peace When Someone Is Gone

Written by: the Editors of goop


Updated on: April 25, 2019

Making Peace When Someone Is Gone

Photo courtesy of Sophie Van der Perre

If there is one thing about forgiveness that Claire Bidwell Smith wants you to know, it’s this: It’s about you.

“Forgiveness is not about letting the other person off the hook,” says Smith. “Forgiveness is about not carrying that baggage with you. It’s a kindness you can do for yourself. It’s about you letting go of anger and bitterness and living a peaceful, meaningful life.”

Of course, the concept of forgiveness gets more complicated when someone has passed away, continues Smith, who knows loss all too well. She’d lost both of her parents by the age of twenty-five, which “catapulted” her into a career as a grief therapist. She’s now spent more than a decade helping clients answer the question: How do we forgive ourselves or someone else when the other person is no longer here?

Your forgiveness journey requires intention—and fortitude, says Smith—whether you are struggling to forgive yourself or searching for ways to forgive a deceased loved one. And yes, we can and should “seek forgiveness even when someone has not asked for it,” she says. To brush it aside, to deny that you need to go through this process is to deny yourself the peace that forgiveness brings. And not working through the tough emotions is what leads to “a more complicated grief, fraught with anxiety and depression and physical illness,” says Smith. Painful though it may seem in the short term, over the long run, “working to release ourselves, or someone else, is part of the healing journey.”

A Q&A with Claire Bidwell Smith, LCPC

How do you judge the offense? When we’re on the receiving end of wrongdoing, it hardly leaves us impartial. How do you determine how bad it really is?

Begin by being honest about what needs to be forgiven. If you made mistakes, don’t pretend you didn’t, not even to yourself. If the person who died made mistakes, then start there—by acknowledging just that. As you do this, remember that two things can be true at once: We can love and miss someone, and we can also be angry with them.

Also, you can get a little objectivity around it. You have to check in with other people who can hold you accountable. And I think you can imagine if another person were in the same scenario. You could take those questions and ask that of, maybe, your partner—somebody close who can look at it from that perspective. Someone close enough to you in that realm, but also someone who knows you well enough to be able to help answer those questions and give you some objectivity.

You talk a lot about getting your feelings out. Is it just stream of consciousness or do you want to organize it?

I think both. I think you maybe need to start with stream of consciousness. I think often all these thoughts and feelings we have get big and loud in our heads. And then when we put them on paper, sometimes we are able to really see them and hear them in a different way. And also we can pull them apart and dissect them a bit more and organize them in a sense.

Then find a way to say you’re sorry or find a way to tell your person how hurt and angry you are. You can do this by writing letters, talking out loud, or even confiding in a friend, spiritual advisor, or counselor.

I did all kinds of messy purging of different feelings when my parents passed away. Especially when I was writing my first book. There were a lot of different moments of feeling angry, or bitter, or confused. And once I would kind of write through different scenarios, it would help me shift some of those feelings to where I could be a little bit more objective about them. And also it helped me move through some of the anger, so that I could write about it in a different way.

When people are angry, it’s really just masking something, usually hurt, fear, or sadness. So trying to get to the point by just asking, “What is it about this that hurts?” or “What is it about this that scares me?” and then sitting with that usually will help dissipate the anger.

How do you confront the person if they have passed away?

You can confront them in a spiritual sense. It’s a way of communicating, connecting, reckoning with the person you lost.

One technique you can use is the empty-chair technique. It’s been used in therapy for decades. If you want to forgive your mother, imagine her sitting in the chair next to you. What would you say to her? Face the chair and say exactly what you would say if she were here. This is an incredibly effective technique for purging that baggage.

Some people feel better almost immediately. Some people need to do it over and over. Personally, I felt a lot of guilt after my mother died because I wasn’t there the night that she died. And for me, I had to write her letters apologizing for that. After asking forgiveness for that, many times, until it finally kind of dissipated, I was able to also forgive myself.

And it’s worth saying that you should decide whether the forgiveness you are seeking is warranted. Sometimes we hold on to feelings of betrayal and anger—even at ourselves— because it is easier than feeling the pain of sadness.

Where does self-compassion come in?

That’s a really big one. I think when we have a lot of compassion for ourselves, we can sit in more uncomfortable spaces. We can let ourselves be human, be flawed. We can let other people be flawed. We can have more compassion for other people when we have compassion for ourselves.

That foundational piece is really important—and it’s also one of the hardest things. We really beat ourselves up as humans, especially when we’re in a vulnerable space or when we’re grieving. Those are the times when self-compassion usually goes out the window. Just finding some level of feeling okay with ourselves for being vulnerable or having made mistakes or any of that. So again, when we do that for ourselves, we’re better able to do it for other people as well.

Try self-compassion exercises. Oprah has had it right all these years: We have to love ourselves before we can get any work done. Find ways (guided meditations are great!) to give yourself some love and understanding of the fact that you are having these feelings, and also find ways to understand that the person who hurt you is human and flawed.

How do you suggest getting through the anger?

I think you have to peel back the anger. Isn’t the anger really hurt? If you’re mad at your mother, doesn’t it really just come down to feeling that she didn’t love you? Or didn’t choose you in some way? Peel back the hurt and sit with that—let yourself feel that and acknowledge it and cry over it.

It’s much easier to be angry. And it makes you feel as if you can do more because it’s more action-oriented. Feeling sad—and just sitting there feeling sad—sucks. It feels really vulnerable, and it hurts. But when you do it, when you let yourself be immersed in it, then you could move through it. Fully own your pain. There’s no point in attempting to forgive someone before you have truly let yourself feel and express your pain.

Is there anything else you can do?

Seek counseling. If you are finding yourself mired in bitterness, toward either yourself or someone you loved, really doing some of the emotional heavy lifting with the help of a trained therapist can be a huge relief and can help you see positive movement. I think finding a therapist is so important. If you really feel like you need to move through some of this, friends and spouses are not equipped for this role. They’re good for, like, a one-time conversation or kind of bouncing some ideas off of, but you can’t ask them to work through your pain with you. They’re not going to be able to do the work that you need to do to get through it. Only a therapist could do that.

Remember that time really does heal wounds. Grief is startling, and losing someone significant is not something you can process in a month or two. Let time pass. It is a miracle. If you look back at anything in your life, you see that with time, it’s all so much smoothed out. We have to let that be true.

Claire Bidwell Smith is a Los Angeles–based author and therapist. Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief is her third book about grief and loss, following The Rules of Inheritance and After This.