March 2023

Four Years of Guilt.

Four years ago, my sister Izzie lost a friendship that she thought would last. Izzie and the girl Dee were classmates from grades 8 to 10, and with the little memories I had of her, Dee was an only child with a tiger mom. She had long, black hair and a gentle lisp. Her father was a kind yet meek man, who stopped talking as soon as the mother cleared her voice. Her mother was a successful, competitive, and controlling lady that I always hoped to keep a distance.

I don't recall what exactly happened that led to the rupture of a teenage friendship, but it sure was not a surprise to me that the cause was simply distasteful jealousy that fueled gossip and eventually backstabbing -- nothing truly out of the ordinary. But when I texted Izzie and found out she had cried nonstop for hours, I reminded myself that these situations were far tougher to dissociate from when you were directly involved and when your whole social circle existed in that brick-and-mortar establishment called high school.

"Why would someone do that? Why would someone say such unfounded, nasty things about another person?" At the core of my mother's anger were fear and helplessness. "They invited us to dinner not long ago!"

"It's a good lesson to have when you are still young." A serial start-up founder, my dad knows failure and rejection like his car maintenance routine, so he approaches any situation with grit and resilience.

I don't remember what I said to Izzie exactly, but I do recall it being a long conversation. Knowing myself, I probably said something along the lines of "it's not your fault; it is entirely hers." "It can be positive feedback that someone is jealous of you. It means someone aspires to be you but does not know how to show it in a benign way."

(I may or may not have also said, "I will curse her and hope that she burns in hell," but that I blame the fact that I am a protective older sister.)

The story would have ended here. Our memories of Dee would have been buried sooner or later by the busy and eventful life journeys we will lead in the following decades.

But more than four years later -- at the end of February, Izzie received a message from another mutual friend of hers and Dee. Dee had asked the friend to forward the message to Izzie. Dee wrote a lengthy apology admitting to her "fucked up" actions, "shitty" way of handling things, and the pain she caused Izzie back in 2018. She mentioned that she was sorry seven times, and that she was regretful for "deeply hurting" Izzie four times. It was a nice apology -- it was genuine and thoughtful and it convinced us that for the past four years she had been suffering from this as much if not more from this incident. But Izzie found it discomforting rather than soothing. Because it was uncalled for. It was a confession that nobody wanted anymore It was something that Izzie left behind not long after she identified Dee as someone she'll just have to move on from and "leave her to it."

It was midterms season for Izzie so she quickly replied to the mutual friend: "Thanks for relaying the message. I will think about it and get back to you later." A week ago I checked in with Izzie again and she still hasn't written back properly. "What should I say" is still her response. An easy response would simply be a "yes I forgive you" or "no I don't forgive you." But that didn't seem to reflect the complexity of Izzie's emotions.

The story ends here. Chances are Izzie will write back to Dee at some point and be nice about it, but what intrigued me about this story is the power dynamic that decided who could sleep at night. I was drawn to the power of forgiveness and the power of lingering guilt, as well as the power of opening up and letting things out.

The Power of Forgiveness & Lingering Guilt

Izzie is not yet ready to reply to the message because she suddenly realised the power she has over Dee. All these years she thought Dee had the upper hand for bullying her and leaving her without a friends group, and all this time Izzie forced herself to be strong, resilient, resourceful, and to a certain degree dissociate because she knew to relinquish control in this was the right move, but it also meant she must gain it somewhere else.

But today upon receiving the message, Izzie saw the power of guilt and of the imagination of the status quo that turned out differently.

The Power of Opening Up and Closure

As much as this message brought more confusion than comfort, I am glad Dee did this, albeit four years after. As much as she wrote that she was looking for forgiveness and connection, I am convinced that her guilt is reprieved just because she wrote this message, and even more so, now forwarded to Izzie. Even if Izzie doesn't ever reply to her with the exact words "I forgive you," Dee will be okay going forward. This event will bother her a lot less, and I am confident she will eventually move on.

In therapy, one of the best ways to deal with grief and the lack of closure is the "empty chair" exercise, a simple technique that originated in gestalt therapy in which the client conducts an emotional dialogue with another person (or aspects of themself), who is imagined to be sitting on an empty chair listening and engaging in the conversation. The point of the technique is not to create a sense of distorted reality that the person may have received this message in a spiritual realm. Rather, it is purely about holding space for ourselves to organise our thoughts, open up and express out loud all those oppressed feelings that are often key to healing.

My sister Izzie may have declined to show up on the chair, but Dee nonetheless had the emotional dialogue and expressed the guilt that's been eating her away. I am sure Dee had been curious and looked forward to Izzie's response, but deep down she also knew, that with or without Izzie's acceptance of her apology, she's claimed back her power to be and to be forgiven.

Four Years of Guilt

When letting out is forgiveness.

4/2/20234 min read