This is based on a (very long) post I wrote on the psychcafe in response to another member asking about forgiveness. Forgiveness was something I struggled with for a very long time (I still can!) and I thought some people might find it helpful to read.
Disclaimer/Trigger warning for religious material: This is very much written from the perspective of my world view as a Christian and I understand that not everyone reading will agree with all the values that I discuss. I am also painfully aware that some people have undergone childhood abuse presented in religious terms and therefore might find this very triggering. But in order to explain what happened I have to refer to those beliefs and how they affected me. All I ask is that you accept that they were my values so this was how I saw it. I think the larger principles about forgiveness translate pretty well across other world views.
Back in 2000, I was still struggling with forgiveness. I had done a lot of trauma work which had finally allowed me to recognize my anger (ok, rage). But as hard as I was working, I couldn’t let go and forgive (I have a strong belief that forgiveness is a necessary thing, although now I believe that it can take a lot of time depending on the severity of wrongdoing, and in some ways is an on going process for the rest of your life.) My husband and I had just taken a really great Sunday school class at our church (best we ever took actually) on parenting. There was one section that addressed the commandment “Honor thy father and mother.” The couple teaching the course (it was a video tape series) talked about everyone being called to obey this commandment. But depending on how we raised our children, we could rob them of the joy of obeying that command. That honoring your mother or father can be a joyful, easy thing to do or it can become an onerous duty. When I heard that, something in me was struck like a bell: “that’s it!! I’ve been robbed of the joy of honoring my parents.” But along with it came the deep sense that in order to be faithful to the call of God on my life, I needed to do just that, honor my mother and father, no matter how impossible it looked from where I was sitting (and it looked utterly impossible from where I was sitting). I didn’t believe that God would give me a commandment and not the resources to obey it (ok, I did struggle with the feeling He was trusting me too much. 🙂
So I was struggling with what it meant to honor my father, especially as I hadn’t seen him or communicated with him since the age of 11 (I was now 39). One of my older sisters, who has also done significant work in therapy, is my closest family member. She had occasionally over the years been in touch with my father, as he would surface occasionally. I had always asked her not to give my father any specific information about me that would allow him to locate me including my married name (and this was before I even remembered the sexual abuse. As a matter of fact, when I did remember the abuse the first time and told my sister, she told me she has always wondered why I went into such a panic when she heard from dad.) We had also stayed in touch with one aunt from my father’s side of the family. It had been a number of years since my sister had heard from my dad when she got a call from my Aunt. My father had a major stroke seven years before and lost some mobility and was now in the hospital with congestive heart failure (he was only 67 but had been an alcoholic since the age of 16 which had taken a deep toll on his health. Frankly, I have no idea how his liver held out THAT long. He was in a hospital in Charleston, SC (about a 15 hour drive from my home) and had only days to live. No one from the family was going to see him (he was estranged from everyone) but my aunt thought we should know.
My sister holds very different spiritual beliefs from what I do, but that’s never gotten in the way for us (nor our politics, which are also polar opposites :)). She called and told me that she felt very strongly that she needed to go see Dad before he died and she knew she was asking a lot (my sister had no memories of sexual abuse from my father, just his raging) and she didn’t expect me to see him but she really wanted me to go with her. Her strongest reason was that didn’t want to go alone, but she also said she felt very strongly that I should go with her. I prayed about it and felt very led to go, especially knowing this was the last chance I would ever have to see my dad.
My sister and I met at my MIL’s (which was about five hours from both of our homes). My MIL took my two children for me so my sister and I could drive down. Our original plan was that we would drive down in one day, get a hotel and then head to the hospital in the morning. My sister had spoken to my father at the hospital and was in touch with one of the nurses. On the way down, we got a call from the nurse who told us to come straight to the hospital as he didn’t have much time left. Partway down we stopped for dinner and realized that we both felt really discouraged and depressed and like we couldn’t go on. Again, though being from very different faith backgrounds, we both felt like it was a spiritual attack. I knew I had many dear friends praying for me, and we pushed on through. It was almost ten o’clock that night (we had been on the road since 6 AM) and we were exhausted, dirty and disheveled but headed for the hospital.
I was re-reading the book “Wounded Heart” by Dan Allender which is an amazing book about healing from incest and had it with me so I was reading it in the car when my sister was driving. I hit the chapter about forgiveness. Now the major thing that bothered me about forgiveness, especially with my dad was that he had never admitted to any wrongdoing or changed in any way and I believed that forgiving him would mean having an active relationship and no way was I going anywhere near that man. Now I had read the book before, several years earlier, but somehow the chapter on forgiveness went right over my head. I have often found that I don’t hear something until I am ready to hear it. I wasn’t ready to hear it the first time I read the book. The author defined forgiveness as letting go of your right to revenge the injury done to you. This was a real epiphany for me. Forgiving wasn’t about acting like nothing had happened or you hadn’t been injured. It was just saying I won’t retaliate, I’m going to let God handle what should be done about it. I realized I could live with that. But the really important part for me was that the author made VERY clear that while letting go of our right to revenge was something we could do on our own, restoration of relationship was acutely dependent on the other person’s repentance of their behavior; that they took responsibility for their behavior and the need to change it. God does NOT require us to continue in relationship with someone who is abusing us. Actually its not a loving act to allow someone to continue to abuse you, because they’re committing wrongdoing. I felt like I had been hit with a bolt of lightning; this was an understanding of forgiveness I could accept and live with. I knew it would be hard enough to let go of my right of revenge but at least it didn’t mean I needed to have a relationship OR act as if the injury had never happened. I had spent enough of my life denying what had happened to me and I wasn’t willing to do that anymore.
We were both kind of shocked to find that as we got closer, the level of fear kept rising until about an hour out it hit terror. We can laugh about it now, but I was driving (white knuckled but all those times of driving absolutely terrified to therapy were finally coming in handy.) I basically shut EVERYTHING down, except the cognitive abilities involving operating a car. My sister was so upset, that although I was actually driving five miles an hour under the speed limit, she was literally screaming at me that I was driving too fast and needed to slow down for the last half an hour. We pulled up in the hospital parking lot and when we got out of the car, I literally couldn’t stand up from the fear. My knees buckled and I collapsed against the car; the only thing holding me up was with my arm across the door . My sister told me that I didn’t have to go in, but I really felt like I needed to and I really didn’t want to leave her to face this alone. I know it’s going to sound a little crazy but when I went to walk I felt like I was being held up. I really believe in that moment that God gave me the strength to do what I needed to do because I was trying to be obedient to what He asked of me. So we headed into the hospital.
We took the elevator up to the floor my dad was on and again, I know this sounds weird, but as soon as the elevator door opened, I knew exactly where my dad’s room was. We headed towards his door and were met by the nurse on duty (may I say now that the staff at the hospital were amazing from beginning to end and very sensitive about our situation.) We were TOTALLY shocked when the nurse told us that dad was running a 103.7 fever, had lost consciousness and probably would not regain it. Which was like “what?!?? I feel like I’m supposed to come down here and I won’t even get to talk to him, what’s the point, where’s the closure in that?”
We headed for his room. I had wondered for so many years how I was going to feel when I reached this moment and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. We walked through the door and the first feeling was shock. We both remembered my father as a very large, strong, frightening figure but what we found was a man old and withered (way beyond his age) and obviously a threat to no one. This was the first, and very important, thing I was sent to learn: I was no longer powerless, nor was my father still all-powerful. I am not proud of the next thing I felt but I want to be honest. I looked on my dying withered father for the first time in 28 years and felt the deepest, blackest, wave of pure hatred roll over me. I literally could have struck him as he lay there in a coma. This obviously wasn’t going to be a warm fuzzy of a reunion. The feeling was so strong that I went to the waiting room to calm down and while I sat there I started praying. The realization hit me of just how very heavy that hatred was and just how long I had been carrying it. And I realized I didn’t have to and I remember just praying “God I don’t want to carry it anymore, he’s your problem, you judge him, I’m going to give up my right to do anything to him.” (Side note: lest this sound like some quick and easy thing, there were YEARS of hard work that led up to that moment and actually allowed me to let go. And even with all that, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do letting go of that hatred.) At that moment, I experienced an almost physical sensation of a huge weight having been lifted.
A strong component of my work in therapy had centered around realizing that although I was very angry with my father and could even hate him, I still desperately wanted to know that he loved me. Which was a difficult realization, as I did not want to desire anything from someone who had treated me that way. But I could not get away from the fact that this man was my father and important to who I was in ways I could not escape.
I went back into the room where my sister had stayed and my father’s breathing was very agitated and even unconscious he seemed to be thrashing around. At that moment, in the quiet, I heard “honor thy father” and I realized that I needed to make the forgiveness I had just experienced tangible. I hadn’t touched my dad yet, nor frankly, did I want to. So I walked up to the bed and touched his arm (eerily enough, without knowing, I had actually chosen the only arm with feeling, the other had been left paralyzed by the stroke seven years early.) With my hand on his arm, I leaned over him and said “dad, I forgive you.” To both my sister and I’s shock, he immediately calmed down. Eventually we realized there wasn’t much more to be done, so we went and found a hotel room, took a hot shower and got some sleep. We headed back to the hospital first thing the next morning.
My father had been together for a number of years with a woman whom I’ll call Jane, who was another alcoholic. They were married at this point. She was with my dad the last time I had seen him and was not the nicest person. OK, she bordered on cruel. When we walked into the room, she was there, and obviously distraught. So my sister and I took the high road, and asked if there was anything we could do. My father and his wife had been living off of a small stipend from a trust fund my (quite wealthy) grandparents had set up on their death. He could not draw on the principle (that was to be split between my three siblings and I at his death) but received a monthly support check from the interest. So when he died, Jane was going to be left virtually penniless. So the one thing she told us was that she could not afford to pay for a funeral. (OK very ironic moment, because our other sister, who emphatically did NOT want to see dad before he died, had informed us in no uncertain terms that she was NOT paying for the funeral. There’s a fair amount of money on my dad’s side and our trust fund was a fraction of what went to my dad’s siblings on his parents’ death but my father had so estranged everyone that his family had washed their hands of him years earlier.) So this is where it really started to get weird (did I mention this is a REALLY long story, and I’m even leaving some stuff out!). About a half an hour later, my dad died. Jane and my sister were talking and didn’t notice, but I was looking straight at him, and actually saw the moment of his death. Which was the second reason I was there. Even with having been able to forgive him, the world became a safer place when I saw him pass from it. I have breathed easier ever since.
We met with the hospital liaison and got the name of the local Catholic funeral home (my father was a devout Catholic his whole life, I know I know but trust me he really was) and my sister and I called the funeral director. Now eventually my sister was going to get the money from the trust fund (which ended up being a surprising $40,000 each) but did not have any money to put towards the funeral then. So we agreed that I would pay for the whole thing, but when the money came through, she would reimburse me for half the expenses. So I called my husband, who is an incredibly wonderful man, and we discussed the whole thing and he told me if it’s $5000 or less just put it on the credit card, but if it’s over that call me back because we’re going to have to figure out where to get the money from.
My sister called the funeral director and explained that there was not a lot of money, we wanted basic, but we did want a decent burial. “Honor thy father” was now a constant refrain in my head. We met with the funeral director and the one request my father had made was that he be buried and not cremated which meant that we had to buy a funeral plot. When the funeral director asked how many death certificates we needed when we were planning the funeral, I told him that my other sister probably wanted to wall paper with them. Just to let you know what a nice guy he was, when my sister screamed in horror that I said that, he told us it wasn’t close to the worst thing he’d ever heard, and went on to tell us some REALLY funny stories. While we were meeting with him and setting up the plans, he mentioned that he personally knew the priest who had taken the my father’s last confession (hours before he became unconscious) and did we want to talk to him. We said no and continued. He offered again and we said no. We finished all the plans and the total came to, are you ready? $4,997. As I signed the receipt for the charges, I knew a sense of satisfaction that I was being obedient to the call of God, that I had chosen to honor my father by making sure he had a proper burial, but what was the point? (Hey, I’m as selfish as the next girl! Why had God dragged me all the way down there if there was nothing in it for me?). As I pushed the paper over, the funeral director picked up his telephone, dialed and without asking, handed me the phone. It was the priest who had taken my father’s last confession. In the moment of my obedience, God showed me his provision. The priest said to me that it was obvious that my father, while being a very intelligent charismatic man, had been plagued by chemical and spiritual demons his whole life, that he had never overcome. That he loved me very much and was so sorry for how he had hurt me (I had recovered the memories of the abuse in my 30s and this was the confirmation I thought I would never get). It was in that moment that I realized for all the hatred and rage, what I really really had still wanted to know was that my father loved me. I burst out into tears and sobbed on the phone.
At this point, my feelings were so complex that I was incredibly grateful that God had the job of judging my father because I didn’t feel capable. He was living in poverty and squalor deserted by everyone he had ever loved but his dysfunctional alcoholic wife. What my father had done to himself, what he lost, was so much worse than any revenge I could ever have come up with. And then I was able to realize that I hoped God forgave him so that I could meet my father in heaven and finally have the loving relationship I had always wanted with him.
Just for the record, that didn’t completely take care of the forgiveness stuff. As I have uncovered more memories and experienced new rages, I’ve had to let go time and again. But I have never lost the compassion and insight God gave me on that trip. My father choose acts of evil in order to deal with his problems, acts that I, by the grace of God, have never chosen for myself but they were human acts of evil and not beyond redemption. I was so very grateful to realize that at the end of the day my desire was for his redemption and not his damnation. I like being that person better. BUT, and I so sincerely mean this, I could not have reached that point without a LOT of help from God and I completely understand someone NOT being able to go there. Forgiveness of these types of wrongs is difficult beyond comprehension and not a choice I would ever presume to make for someone. I know people who have experienced what I would consider much worse abuse that I have (make no mistake, what happened to me was pretty bad and nothing to shrug off, it’s taken me a long time to accept that) and I know how incredibly difficult it was and how long it took to reach the beginning of being able to forgive. So I find it totally understandable and would not consider an inability to forgive a failing. There is an author Jeanne Safer, who actually wrote a book discussing whether forgiveness is necessary or not, which I found to be a fascinating read when I was struggling with it. The book is Forgiving & Not Forgiving: A New Approach to Resolving Intimate Betrayal.
And I truly do believe that it is especially difficult for someone who experienced abuse as a child to be able to believe in a loving God, you possess so much evidence to the contrary that sometimes it seems like an insane thing to do. If I am honest, sometimes my belief has faltered and at other times it has been a blind stubborn faith because I didn’t want to live in a world in which it wasn’t true. For people who struggle with this but I found C.S Lewis’ The Problem of Pain really helped me to work through the issue.
I know a HUGE breakthrough for me was when the Boundary Ninja, based on a poem I wrote, identified my belief that pain was an integral part of love, only to teach me that pain occurs in every life, but love is the answer to that pain. That also describes who I believe God to be. He answers pain with love.
And I wanted to also address the subject of anger as it was intimately wrapped up in my struggle to forgive. Anger, especially in relationship to the abuse, has always been a very difficult emotion for me. Anger in my experience ALWAYS led to violence, so much so that BN actually had to explain to me the difference between anger and violence. (Essentially thinking about bashing someone in the head with a heavy object is anger, actually doing it is violence.) I was terrified of allowing myself to feel anger because it felt like a straight, very short path from anger to becoming my father. NOT a place I wanted to go. So I worked very hard for a very long time to avoid my anger.
And herein is something that I believe trips up a lot of people with forgiveness. We “rush” to the forgiveness part so we can skip over and not experience our anger. But the problem is that unacknowledged anger still seethes below the surface marring whatever simulacrum of forgiveness we try to force ourselves to feel. The truth is that anger is a valuable emotion, one that signals to us that something wrong is happening, it is an energy that can spur us to right wrongs and change things for the better (think of the abolition of slavery or defeating the Nazi’s for instance.) Anger in and of itself not bad. And the truth is, that for a victim of abuse, anger is the correct response. A grave injustice was perpetrated upon your person and anger just makes sense. But what’s important is what you do with it. For me, once I could start recognizing the anger, I would often use that energy to reject the lies I had learned that I was angry about. I used my anger to push them away and deny them.
So it is possible, and I believe especially easy in the Christian faith as it is widely practiced today, to use the “oh I need to forgive” as a defense to try and bypass facing and acknowledging our anger. So don’t be in a rush to get to the forgiveness part. You’re anger deserves to be heard and acknowledged. It isn’t until you have experienced the depth of the injury and your responses to it that you can really forgive. That is why forgiveness is an ongoing task for me. As I’ve dug up more memories and finally experienced all my feelings around them, I then have to again choose to forgive. But most times that process is long and difficult.
So for abuse victims, who are so often indoctrinated in the belief that they’re feelings are not to be listened to or valued, I can guarantee that your energy should be concentrated on hearing your anger and fear and grief BEFORE you focus on forgiving the injury. Listen to yourself first, so you know what it is that you need to forgive.