Forgiveness Given, Forgiveness Denied

My sister's death has taught me the urgency of seeking and offering forgiveness.We do not know when death will come for us. The weight of forgiveness withheld is a terrible burden to leave for others.

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Several months after Ruthie died, her teenage daughter Hannah told me that it would be hard for her younger sisters to get close to me because their mother had often spoken ill of me to them – even in the last months of her life. Hannah said that she knew her mother’s judgments were not fair, but her sisters had no reason to distrust their mother. And this, Hannah said, would be a problem for me.

I was crushed – and furious at Ruthie. She had not forgiven me after all. Nor had she ever been aware that she was not only sinned against, but also sinning. Her cancer diagnosis offered the opportunity for reconciliation and starting fresh. But she refused to have that healing conversation, and to do the hard but necessary work of repairing a relationship that both of us had spent years damaging. It was easier for her to hold that grudge.

Every day I wrestle with this part of my sister’s legacy. Her friends tell me that she loved me, and I believe it. I really do. They tell me things she said about me that make her affection clear. Yet she never said those things to me, and rebuffed my attempts to clear the air between us. Why? I don’t know.

And now, with Ruthie gone, I never will. I fear that the pain of rejection, of unfinished business between my sister and me, will stay with me until, in God’s mercy, we are reunited in heaven.

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This has taught me, though, the urgency of seeking and offering forgiveness. We do not know when death will come for us. The weight of forgiveness withheld is a terrible burden to leave for others. Ruthie loved family more than anything, but without meaning to, she made it harder for our family to be strong in her absence, because of the mistrust and suspicion of their uncle she left for her younger children.

My sister was breathtakingly courageous in the face of cancer. Her tragedy – our tragedy, and our family’s tragedy – is that she was not once brave enough to say to me, “I forgive you, brother; please forgive me too.”

Rod Dreher is a Beliefnet columnist and the author of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, which has just been published by Grand Central. Follow him on Twitter @roddreher, or connect with him at the Rod Dreher fan page on Facebook.

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