Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Approaching Yom Kippur: On Sin & Forgiveness
On Yom Kippur, I will join with Jews around the world in the Al Chet prayer, striking our chests as we confess collective, potential sins and ask for pardon. In Hebrew, the word for sin literally means “missing the mark”--a gentler, less alienating concept that can encompass all sorts of behavior. This year, my son’s abandonment of life and my failings toward him both feel so far off the mark that the gentler wording seems a euphemism. When one is so weighted with remorse, only the powerful, classic notion of sin is fitting.
The first step in repentance, during the 40 days preceding Yom Kippur, is to face and name our failings. I have been endlessly cataloging my personal Al Chet for N in lists of the many things I failed to do in the last months of his life. I have cried out these sins to N at his grave and elsewhere, though I don’t yet sense any listening presence. The list only seems to get longer as I grasp (or at least intuit) more of N’s suffering.
The next step is to seek forgiveness from the people we have wronged. As poet Marge Piercy writes in “Head of the Year”: Now you must void yourself/of injuries, insults, incursions./Go with empty hands to those/you have hurt and make amends./It is not too late . . . In the past, I wrote notes to my children for this purpose. They never responded, but N treasured the notes enough to save a few in his box of memories; I will have to take that as his answer. One of the hardest things about suicide loss, especially with a rebellious young person, is that we lose the chance for future forgiveness and reconciliation—the validation parents hope to get once the fog of adolescent anger lifts and adult children can look back more calmly on their upbringing. I will never have that conversation with N, the chance for reconnection and redemption. The chance to work out old hurts over a lifetime of relationship.
Now, I am the only one who can forgive myself. And I am not ready. All I can do is listen to teachers like Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who suggest that we balance the traditional accounting of sins in the liturgy with an alternative prayer detailing all the good we have done in the past year. Slowly, I can add to the list of what I gave N as a mother over the year, over the years until I am more ready to let go of self-blame.
As for forgiving N for leaving us at this time in this way, the task is formidable and it is far too soon. I do not believe that suicide is a sin in the sense of a moral breach that must be punished and anyone associated with it ostracized; to believe that is to perpetuate the deep-rooted stigma that still plagues suicide survivors today. Yet at the moment, suicide feels like a crime against humanity, a violent upending of the natural order and perhaps the worst hurt anyone can inflict on their loved ones. Like murder, the act is irreversible and there is no way to make amends. Blogger Marjorie Antus, in Mary’s Shortcut, writes eloquently of how long it has taken to understand her daughter’s state of mind that led to suicide: “Knowing has given rise to forgiveness that I think, after 17 years, is finally in place.” So I may be forgiven for not being ready to forgive after only five months!
As I approach this first Yom Kippur since N’s death, this first step toward the hardest act of forgiveness I will ever face, I take courage from a Benedictine nun quoted by Antus: “Only if we can care for another enough to try to understand what drove the behavior that hurt us so, can we put our own pain down long enough to forgive. Forgive is what we do when our love is as real as our pain.”* N and others who take their lives could not put down their pain long enough to see the consequences of their actions or the possibility of another way out. Will we, too, as survivors continue to be blinded by pain?
* From Chittister, J.D. (2004). Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir. Lanham, Maryland: Sheed & Ward.