29 01, 2021

Guest Blog: Sawbonna and Forgiveness by Dr. Reinekke Lengelle

By |2021-01-29T09:04:40-08:00January 29th, 2021|Uncategorized|0 Comments

To Forgive is Not a Verb: A reflection

Reinekke Lengelle

Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.” Rumi

In my book about grief and spousal loss, I talk about unfinished business and anger, but I don’t talk about forgiveness. It’s not because of my more secular approach to spirituality and bereavement, but because “forgiveness” is not do-able.

To forgive is technically a verb like “to swim” and “to jump” so we are hoodwinked by the concept. We believe we have to do something, which, of course, we don’t know how to do.

You can conjugate “to forgive”, but it is not actionable. My friend and colleague Margot Van Sluytman calls it, “The other F word” which I think fairly describes the frustration that its implications evoke. Van Sluytman speaks instead of Sawbonna:  “A recognition of seeing and being seen. Shared-humanity.” This doesn’t mean we have to like or condone or accept the behaviour, in the past, present, or future.

As long as we are trying to do forgiveness or get forgiveness, it’s frustrating and adds insult to injury. The concept seems to imply that if we can’t or don’t do it, we’re not loving, especially when it involves someone close to us or a person we would like to forgive, even for our own freedom. If to forgive is a verb, it’s a passive one: it happens to you as a result of other processes.

Forgiveness, if the word serves at all, is the outcome of a process of feeling and reflection where we give up on our goals and notions of goodness or badness. Colleague and grief scholar Robert Neimeyer describes it this way, “If forgiveness applies at all as a description it seems to be a side effect of something deeper and more complex—seeing the other’s essential humanity, practicing deep compassion and empathy, and deconstructing our own moralism and rhetoric of contempt.”

I can explain what I mean best with some more examples of other verbs that are not actionable.

After my spouse’s death, in moments of deep sorrow, well-meaning others gave me advice like: be strong, keep your chin up, remember the good times, and be grateful for what you have. Now imagine yourself in a moment of deep authentic sadness. Notice how unnatural it would be to try to do any of these things. Imagine how exhausting and pressuring the very idea is!

What others wanted was for me to be okay; what they were saying is that they hoped I might bypass how I felt by doing or intending a wise-sounding action. This is a kind of magical thinking – it implies that we can transport ourselves to desired states merely by doing something. People who say these well-meaning things may believe they are wishing us well, but usually they are wishing away their discomfort.

A friend who listened to my utterly water-logged heart and did NOTHING and advised NOTHING gave me some of the best help I got from anyone. Interestingly, after such moments, I would always feel stronger. My chin would rise of its own accord; I was likely to remember a sweet or funny moment with my spouse; I would naturally fill with gratitude again.

Likewise a friend who said, “you don’t have to forgive anything; you can be angry, because you are,” did more to move me towards understanding, than anyone who was trying to bring me understanding.

So, to be with our anger or our sorrow, and let it be there without our resistance is the start of a kind of grace. After being with feelings, a dialogue about our humanity and the perspectives at the heart of the trespass can be useful. The space that opened up as a I accepted that besides sorrow, I also had unfinished business with my beloved, was the ground on which I could start exploring his humanity and my own. From this place of not-having-forgiven but accepting that fact, I began to see my own perfectionism and my insistence on a different past and the impossibility of that. I started to be open to questions like: what human needs were at the heart of our painful patterned responses?

The paradox should be happily obvious now: in accepting our resistance to forgiveness – and our willingness to be with what we didn’t want but has already happened – is to free the way for peace.

The idea of forgiveness actually starts to become redundant.

There is only one useful thing about the verb “forgive” – the moment the concept arises, we can use it to pinpoint the hurt.  We can shine a light on what is yet unresolved and formulate a wish around it, “I wish I’d been heard in my fear around…” and “I wish I’d known how to speak my boundary.”

I didn’t forgive. Instead, I wrote. That was actionable. I wrote a dialogue between me and my deceased spouse. I told him what I was mad about. I added the voice of a really good counsellor into the mix, so we would be accompanied, and I’d be heard, and my love wouldn’t be able to get away with his old tricks.

You can try it too. You begin with words like, “Tell me what was going on for you when you shouted…when you didn’t talk about… when you told a half-truth…when…” and let yourself write back from their perspective, from their vulnerable humanity.  I got some very good answers, even things my spouse had already said when he was alive but which I could hear better now. I could see he had a point. He seemed to think my points made sense too.

I saw him. He saw me. It wasn’t too late. I saw that we had trespassed because of our fear and pain, not because we were right or wrong or needed to figure out some ultimate perspective on what our unique perpetual problem had been.

There’s the paradox. To forgive is to give up on the idea of doing anything, either “for” yourself or someone else.

And any thoughts I had about making myself lower “to be forgiven” or any thoughts I had about making the other lower, so they would become “worthy of my forgiveness” was futile and vain. It was okay to feel humbled, but there was no need for a winner, loser, good, bad, or ugly. Likewise, Sawbonna is without such moral labels.

What advice would I give myself now, looking back: See if you can hear each other without a clench. See if you can listen without defending yourself. There is usually a nod to our own foolishness, our moralistic thinking, or an acknowledgement that there were things we did not know until the moment we knew them. Any lamenting about what could and should have been is just a form of reverse vanity. To smarten-up is another unactionable verb; we can begin instead with “to listen”.

When we have met others in their humanity, there may be some tears, or a silence, or a grunt of recognition, and likely a sigh, or even a smile. Or as Margot Van Sluytman reminds me, “Perhaps a smile. Perhaps not smile. Either way, a recognition of seeing and being seen.”


© January 2021



Reinekke Lengelle’s new book,

Writing the Self in Bereavement: a story of love, spousal loss, and resilience (Routledge, 2021)



In Writing the Self in Bereavement: A Story of Love, Spousal Loss, and Resilience,

Reinekke Lengelle uses her abilities as a researcher, a poet, and a professor of

therapeutic writing to tell a heartfelt and fearless story about her grief after the death

of her spouse and the year and a half following his diagnosis, illness, and passing.

This book powerfully demonstrates that writing can be a companion in

bereavement. It uses and explains the latest research on coming to terms with

spousal loss without being prescriptive. Integrated with this contemporary

research are stories, poetry, and reflections on writing as a therapeutic process.

The author unflinchingly explores a number of themes that are underrepresented

in existing resources: how one deals with anger associated with loss, what a

healthy response might be to unfinished business with the deceased, continuing

conversations with the beloved (even for agnostics and atheists), ongoing sexual

desire, and secondary losses.


As a rare book where an author successfully combines a personal story, heartrending

poetry, up-to-date research on grief, and an evocative exploration of taboo

topics in the context of widowhood, Writing the Self in Bereavement is uniquely

valuable for those grieving a spouse or other loved one, those supporting others in

bereavement, and those interested in the healing power of poetry and life writing.

Researchers on death and dying, grief counsellors, and autoethnographers will also

benefit from reading this resonant resource on love and loss.


Reinekke Lengelle, PhD, is assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at

Athabasca University, Canada and a senior researcher at The Hague University,

The Netherlands. She is a poet, a playwright, the co-creator of Career Writing,

and a symposium co-editor with the British Journal of Guidance and Counselling. www.writingtheself.ca.




14 01, 2021

Victim Needs and Services in the Emerging Area of Sawbonna: A New Model of Restorative Justice

By |2021-01-14T11:25:17-08:00January 14th, 2021|Uncategorized|0 Comments


Expressing the need for organized healing spaces for victims of crime in Canada within a framework of her Sawbonna model of (victim-led) restorative justice, Van Sluytman calls attention to a gap in human services. Van Sluytman’s recent construction of the virtual Theodore’s Place Healing Home for Crime Survivors is a step in meeting this need, as she works towards the establishment of ‘bricks & mortar’ day centres starting in Toronto then being built across Canada. Van Sluytman states that, ”Though Theodore’s Place Healing Home for Crime Survivors, is not a healing home for offenders, it is not predicated upon negating or dismissing the need for healing homes for offenders, as well”.  Van Sluytman’s virtual centre welcomes those who have themselves been or had loved ones affected by a specific criminal action.


Because relationship is our way of being in the world, an us versus them manner of addressing important societal issues proves flawed. In the paradigm of justice systems and legal frameworks, a poignant error occurs when it is assumed that victim and offender, and working with and for them and their communities, presupposes a binary notion. Trauma and injustice are not in the purview of specific definitions, organizations, associations, or status symbols demarcated by diplomas, degrees, or employment record. They are, in fact, commonalities distributed far and wide. Ubiquitous as computer screens and keyboards.

In this article, I will be discussing why we need healing homes for crime survivors and that those healing homes are not to be in-place of nor in opposition to healing homes for offenders. Within the context of Sawbonna, which is an award-winning model of restorative justice, shared-humanity and human-rights, are foundational. Sawbonna: Victim-Led Restorative Justice is predicated upon building bridges and fording chasms. Predicated upon shining a light on the fact that we all matter; indeed, are on the same team whether we acknowledge that or not. A team that is focused on, tenacious about, and driven by not relegating justice to one camp or the other, fully aware that services available to those who have been harmed by crime and those who have harmed are necessary to address their specific needs.

Theodore’s Place Healing Home for Crime Survivors, currently in virtual iteration, is a healing home that addresses a particular kind of victims’ needs. Victims’ needs, not from the perspective of the heinous and pernicious injustices that have occurred in society because of colonization, because of race, gender, and income barriers that swell prisons here in Canada and internationally. Swelling those prisons with humans that are treated in often the most inhumane manner. And though the line is oft-time blurred between who is the victimized and who is the criminalized in light of the demarcations of: victim and offender, Theodore’s Place Healing Home for Crime Survivors is for those who have been or had loved-ones affected by a specific criminal action.

The fact that it is impossible to have persons who have been harmed share a space with the person who has done the harm, is clear. Theodore’s Place Healing Home for Crime Survivors is for those who have been harmed. In days of yore, penitentiaries were so named for they were supposed to be a place for those who caused harm to go to address their crime, in order to know penitence, in order to find a manner to restore their self-worth, and if possible to understand and be accountable for the harm their actions caused. A place to be penitent. A place where restoration of and understanding of shared-humanity and human-rights could occur. This paper is not about addressing penitentiaries and the work that must be done to affect change in those places. I note it here because another question arises. Arises not in opposition to the need for prisons to be places of healing and support. A question that arises from the fact that no places exist for victims.

The question then is this: where do those who have been victimized go to find restoration of their understanding of their human-rights, care and support for their savage ache, anger, and grief? To have their trauma addressed? No such places, yet, exist. In my recently published paper, *Sawbonna: Victim-Led Restorative Justice, commissioned by The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime under the auspices of The Department of Justice Canada, I address the fact that victims’ services must include bricks-and-mortar homes where crime victims can go, where services specific to their needs are offered.

Getting this to occur means forming relationships with like-minded people who know that choosing a side means dishonouring and disrespecting our very humanity. My admiration stretches out to those who choose to be allies in this work. And though feeling at times as a slow-moving possibility, a growing and powerfully inspiring list of individuals who do not articulate justice from an us versus them dynamic, grows. To be a victim attending a justice conference, particularly a criminal justice or restorative conference, is akin to what my Argentinian cousin, Laura terms, “a cucaracha/cockroach on a chicken farm.” The humour of these words assists in understanding that at both criminology and restorative justice conferences, expectations and understands are often pre-set, and if not adhered to, assumptions, if not downright disrespect, can be levelled.

It, therefore, behooves each of us to ask what our understanding and expectation is for our research and policy decisions; for who, how, what, when, where, and why they are being addressed.

Victims must be included in policy-making decisions at every level of government, as well being included in academia and each of the contexts where decisions about their needs and rights are being discussed and designed. Because Sawbonna: Victim-Led Restorative Justice is clear that retribution and revenge are unacceptable synonyms for victims-services, meaning a foundational ethics for victim needs is unwavering.

That the government must address the creation of healing homes across Canada for victims of crime, is a must. The prevalent focus is, as yet, on building more prisons and punishing offenders, rather than shifting focus on how to not only offer more humane focus on healing of offenders, but to address in concrete ways how to build and support healing homes for crime survivors, which is trauma-informed justice within the crucible of Sawbonna. Those who have been victimized and those who have been criminalized must receive support, bearing in mind that those services and supports offer to society, as a whole, deep and profound richness and possibility for human dignity to be maintained.

The flawed view that unless a victim forgives, unless a victim chooses the side of the offender, they do not care about human-rights, about shared-humanity, is limited, limiting. And wrong. Those who work with and for and because of justice are called to continue our commitment to challenge entrenched presuppositions. To continue to change the narrative. The simplistic narrative of needing more jails, considering this “victim services,” considering this “justice served,” denies human-rights and ignores the fact that one of the services that victims require are healing homes which offer a wide range of supports.

This is what Sawbonna: Victim-Led Restorative Justice calls for. The model I have developed, and upon which the virtual Theodore’s Place Healing Home for Crime Survivors is based, is explained in my recent publication by the Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime.