12/09/2010 03:59 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Forgiving Myself for Killing the Cat

I have thought a lot about self-forgiveness recently. It's a topic that keeps coming up, and I have come to think, from the many people I've met through my work with The Forgiveness Project, that it is perhaps the hardest type of forgiveness of all.

Ever since I killed my cat several years ago by accidently trapping him in the washing machine, self-forgiveness has been a subject close to my heart. I remember so clearly going to unload the machine and wondering how my black fleece had got in among all the whites -- then realizing my appalling mistake. I was distraught, so much so that my husband commented at the time that I'd cried more about the cat than I had about my recently deceased and very much loved grandmother. The fact I had been wholly responsible for the death of this adored family pet sat heavily with me for days. My children blamed me, and I blamed myself -- whilst also feeling infuriated by those who seemed to find it all so funny. I didn't think I'd ever get over it, let alone forgive myself. The worst of it was, I'd seen the cat around my feet minutes earlier, and then, when I went to answer the phone, forgot. There were no mitigating circumstances.

However, exactly a week to the day after I killed the cat, I woke up feeling lighter. I understand now that this feeling of lightness came from me finally being able to forgive myself. I was able to reason at this point that what I had done was an accident, and that I had killed an animal -- not a human being.

A week ago a boy in my son's school was knocked over by a car and killed on his way home. It was an appalling tragedy -- for the family, the boy's friends and for the school. Alongside the outpouring of grief that came from the local community, some people felt some sympathy for the driver, too. I have no idea of the circumstances that led to the accident, but whatever they were, that driver's life must surely be blighted forever. Will he or she ever get over it? Will they ever be able to forgive themselves?

Thinking and writing about self-forgiveness reminds me of a book I read a few years ago called "Why Forgive" by Johann Christoph Arnold. It's a book featuring personal stories of forgiveness, and one of these stories has remained with me ever since. It resonates particularly now, since I have worked with both victims and offenders and understand more fully how using your story to help others is part of the restorative process.

The author describes a parent's worst nightmare, telling the story of when a former teacher of his ran over and killed his own son:

One day as Delf was backing a truckload of firewood into their driveway, two-year-old Nicholas, who was playing outdoors, ran to meet his father. Delf did not see him until it was too late, and ran over him. Katie, Delf's wife, was busy inside the house when he carried in their little boy, limp in his arms.

You might have expected Delf's wife never to forgive him, but Katie's response to the question of forgiveness was:

There was never any question about forgiving my husband, as I knew I was just as much to blame. Likewise he did not blame me, only himself. We stood in our sorrow together.

Arnold continues:

Delf, however, could not forgive himself, and the accident haunted him for years. From then on, he went out of his way to make time for children -- time he could not spend with the son he had killed. Looking back, I remember how his eyes often glistened with tears and wondered what it was that made them come. Was it that he saw his son in us? Was he imagining the boy his toddler would never become? Whatever the reason, it seems that Delf's determination to show love to others was his way of making up for the anguish he had caused himself and his family by unintentionally taking a life. I am convinced that it saved him from brooding, and from nursing his feelings of guilt. Through loving others he was able to forgive himself and regain a sense of wholeness and peace.