Saturday 14 December 2019

Patricia Casey - to forgive does not mean forgetting

Elber Twomey
Elber Twomey

Patricia Casey

One mother's remarkable ability to forgive the killer of her children and husband should serve as a lesson to us all.

In July 2012 the Twomey family from North Cork were holidaying in Devon when a van, driven by Marek Wojciechowski, deliberately swerved across the road and crashed into their car, killing all the family, except Elber.

Elber's husband Con, her baby son Oisin and unborn child Elber Maria were all killed, as was the driver. He was being sought by police after he left a long suicide note before setting out on his final journey following the break-up of his marriage. At a human level, it would seem impossible to forgive such an act, but that is what Elber Twomey has magnanimously done. She has forgiven.

Her recent interview with Sean O'Rourke on RTE 1 radio made for moving and inspirational listening. She recounted that she was unable to pray for Wojciechowski and a priest said he would do it on her behalf. And then a few months later she found herself lighting a candle for him in a church. Her humanity and goodness shone through as she charted her journey away from bitterness towards healing.

One of the consequences of bitterness and resentment is that people cannot let go of the event that has befallen them. The incident might be something much less serious than the loss of an entire family. Simple things such as a row with a neighbour, an act of infidelity by a spouse or an accident at work can have consequences that become all-consuming and overpowering.

Bitterness and forgiveness are not often discussed but there is a large body of research into the impact of an inability to forgive. From an almost total absence of any scientific studies, in the past two decades research has abounded. The results are clear. The inability to forgive is bad for your physical and mental health. It is associated with anxiety, depression, sleep problems. It compromises the immune system and may lead to high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, heart disease and worsens pre-existing illnesses.

Some studies have identified an increased mortality in those unable to forgive. A psychiatric colleague, Michael Linden, based in Berlin has coined the term "post-embitterment disorder" for the state of unforgiveness experienced.

So what is forgiveness? At minimum, it is a decision to let go of the ill-will and resentment felt towards a person who has wronged you. This may or may not include feeling of goodwill towards the other person.

There are some myths about forgiveness too. It is not about excusing or condoning the person's actions. Nor is it about forgetting the past. Forgiveness does not mean getting on with life as if nothing had happened. Forgiveness is not reconciliation - in the context of infidelity it does not mean that the relationship has to be resumed.

Others see forgiveness as weakness and, seething with anger, they demand retribution. But one can forgive even without justice being done. Forgiveness is best viewed as an internal state that is independent of society's demand for the law to take its course or for the individual or community to be compensated somehow.

Forgiveness is hampered by several factors. The person's innate disposition is one. Those who by nature are rigid or who bear grudges easily find forgiveness difficult. People engaging in litigation to correct a perceived wrong done to them may become embroiled in resentment and anger. Understandable distress and even anger in the immediate post-event period are reinforced as the litigation process drags on. Those who engage with social media may also have their negative emotions re-enforced, as this facilitates the anonymous expressions of anger by others.

On the other hand, research shows that living in a culture that admits forgiveness in its ethos facilitates this after shocking events. Having religious beliefs, while not essential, has also been shown to assist in letting go of anger. Receiving an apology and seeing justice done make forgiveness easier but is not essential as some people have the capacity to forgive unconditionally.

Psychiatrists and psychologists deal with a myriad of personal situations in which forgiveness and resentment are issues. The person who has been sexually abused and self-harms; the spouse who experienced infidelity and is now clinically depressed; the individual bullied at work and experiencing anxiety; the person injured in a car accident and suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder; the parent whose child is a drug addict and refuses help are common examples.

Interventions focussing on empathy and gratitude have been incorporated in cognitive approaches and are helpful for those unable to grow into forgiveness.

For the person consumed by anger and resentment, shifting thinking in the direction of acceptance may seem impossible. But Elber Twomey's capacity to forgive will be an inspiration for many held in the claws of bitterness.

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