The Risk of Forgiveness

By: Danielle Ilacqua

At the end of 2019, I quit my secure City job as Assistant General Counsel to go on a two-month mission trip to Taiwan. I told my friends and family this was a spiritual vision quest. I wanted to “find God’s purpose for my life.” In truth was I was seeking closure to pain I never really dealt with and needed to find forgiveness.

I remember it was a Friday. I sat in front of my elementary school with tears welled up in my eyes trying not to blink. If I just refused to truly perceive what was transpiring it would all go away. I fought my eyelids as they succumbed to the necessary blinking which allowed the droplets fall down my face. Mom, who was battling stage four lung cancer wanted me—no demanded—that I go buy her cigarettes as she sat tethered to an oxygen tank at home waiting for Monday to come so we could start the first round of chemo.

My last words to her before storming out were, “Why even start chemo if you’re going to continue to smoke or do you just want to blow up this entire block?” Mom called me as I was crying in the car because she was truly afraid and didn’t know any other way, She had smoked since she was 13. I told her I was going home to Brooklyn when in fact I was five minutes away. I wanted her to want to fight cancer.

I was angry at her for smoking all my life, extremely sad that she was on the precipitous of death and super bitter. Why couldn’t she see I couldn’t bear the thought of her leaving me? Instead of acting like an emotionally intelligent adult and just tell her the truth, I had a pity party. If only I showed some compassion and mercy to a woman who would die a week later? That’s what regret does to you–replays over and over and slowly destroys every ounce of your heart.

Fast forward to mom going on morphine. I knew deep in my heart this was her race finishing up, but I couldn’t handle it. She made the decision because the pain was literally choking her to death. She couldn’t breathe as the cancer spread from her lungs, to her throat and then brain. I said, “Mommy I’m going to run home and get you a nice comfortable nightgown since the port and all the tubes were removed from your arms.” She nodded and said “Ok.” Little did I know when I returned 20 minutes later, she would be completely under and that would be my last conscience words to her.

Why didn’t I just stay? Why didn’t I just hold her hand and tell her how much I loved her until she fell asleep? Thereafter I stayed by her bedside day and night for the next four days, talking to her because they told me her “hearing” would be the last thing to go. But why didn’t I just stay?

There are so many “shoulda,  coulda” in the grief process. The truth is there is no handbook on how to handle losing your mom whether it’s expected or unexpected. There’s no “go to” pamphlet that sets forth the top ten steps of handling death—and not just any death—the death of a Mom. I would have read the TOC over and over and skipped to the sections on what to say and not to say, when to stay and when not to leave, when to hold myself together and just provide comfort instead of display my pain.

Over the course of the next four years, I played every word spoken and scenario before Mom went into the hospital and while she was in the hospital. I even struggled with her wishes of not being buried and wanting to be cremated and put in the ocean. There was no cemetery to visit. There was no place for “me” to grieve. I simply respected her wishes yet harbored pain.

It was only until I was in the middle of a global pandemic, unemployed, no purpose, no grave site and no mom to call for advice did I realize I had to forgive—first my mom and then myself. She did the best she could and thought she was making life easier for me. She thought instead of a depressing cemetery, I would go to the beach and smile as I looked at the sunrise and sunset remembering the days she taught me how to float and swim. I needed to forgive myself for not knowing exactly how to bear the dirty disease of cancer and loss of my only parent without any siblings.

She was MY go-to person. Mom knew everything, guided me through everything and at 41, I couldn’t handle letting go. I needed to forgive myself for not handling her death so well, for not grieving perfectly and at times losing my mind. But how do I forgive myself and importantly, how do I forgive mom?

I went to the source of all answers — Google. Turns out there’s no fake it till you make it in forgiveness even though that’s exactly what the world expects us to do. I tried running from it but the pain was still burning deeply. How do we forgive? That question started a huge Google rabbit hole, and then a huge theological rabbit hole until I could tell you there were 62 passages in the Bible with the word forgive and 27 with the word forgiveness.

“Forgiveness,” I once read “Is the Nike of spiritual gifts—Just Do It!” I was overwhelmed with “how do I forgive” when I really needed to vet out “why” I needed to forgive, starting with myself.  Forgiveness is such a potent force that only when I pictured Jesus’ purpose on this earth could I truly understand what it meant and how to do it. In my mind, I see Jesus looking down from the bloody rugged cross—face marred beyond recognition—as they cast lots for his clothes and mocked Him to fly off the wood he was nailed to and say, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24).

Forgiveness is designed to set us free. The Word says, “Who the son sets free, is free indeed” (John 8:36). Unforgiveness deceives us by flaring up emotions of anger, resentment and even bitterness. And sometimes it’s even justified. But in reality, the only thing it does is control and bind us to more pain. As if the pain of living without your mom isn’t enough, now we beat ourselves with everything we did wrong, she did wrong or even others did wrong while interacting with us during our grief. When we say, “I forgive you,” or “I forgive myself,” what we’re really saying is, we don’t want to hold ourselves captive to all the pain anymore. So, to all of you who are holding on to the only emotion you may have and even fear if you forgive, you may become numb and so cling to remaining heavy laden. But I invite you to please say it with me because WE CAN do this together—”I forgive you” and “I forgive myself.”

Our Moms aren’t coming back and we don’t get a “redo” of how to let go of someone we love deeply. And that’s OK, because we are all just doing the best we can when it comes to looking death straight in the face. It’s not easy. It was never going to be easy. But we can, going forward have the peace Jesus had when he hung on the cross, arms stretched out and said to the world not only, I love you, but I forgive you.

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