We achieve inner health only through forgiveness – the forgiveness not only of others but also of ourselves. –Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman
Forgiveness is a tool of completion. It allows us to move on. When we choose to forgive someone or something that has hurt or injured us, then we have chosen to cross a spiritual bridge to peace instead of blowing up the bridge with resentment, internal struggle and strife. Forgiveness lets us shake off the bonds of self-imposed victimization and resignation. Forgiveness is the footprint of freedom on the journey to care.
My father chose to leave our family when I was still a child. He rented an apartment not far from our home where my brother and I could visit him on weekends. It wasn’t the same as having him around every night helping with homework and making the music that made our home feel like a magical place. Daddy left us with our bipolar mom who loved us more than life itself, but whose unpredictable mood swings sometimes made it hard to maintain a peaceful home. When Mom was in a sad or angry mood, Daddy always diverted us with music and silly stories. He made us believe that the mere act of smiling could change the world. And he was right.
Daddy came back for about a year and then he left for good. This time when he left, he didn’t leave a forwarding address. The pain of his alcoholic life was too great for him to stay or be anywhere close to his children. My brother and I were in our early teens and didn’t understand his pain; we only understood that he had abandoned us, something our mom reinforced constantly. At a time when our friends were groovin’ to The Beach Boys, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, we had lost our music, our smiles and our desire to do anything but watch TV. My brother would leave me and the TV to play basketball a few afternoons a week, but I stayed inside watching soap operas, American Bandstand, even Sesame Street, just to escape the pain.
In 1987, 20 years after my dad moved out of my life, I found him living in a trailer park in Ft. Collins, CO. I had tracked him down through his second wife’s daughter. I had an address and phone number and knew if I dialed that number, I would hear his voice.
All I wanted to do was tell Daddy how much he had hurt me by disappearing when I was a teenager. I wanted to ask him if he had any lingering pangs of guilt about what he had done to us. I wanted to scream and yell and pound my fists and tell him how he had practically ruined our lives. And I wanted to let him know we had found a great new dad in our stepfather, Jack. But when I finally dialed the number and he answered, I simply gasped and said, “Hi Daddy, this is Shannie,” followed by uncontrollable sobs. Years of pain, bitterness and unrequited love spilled out with my tears. All he said, over and over, was, “It’s okay, sweetie. I understand. I’m glad you called me. I understand.”
I remember feeling as if a dam of forgiveness had broken and washed away all the hurt, anger and resignation. Daddy didn’t have to tell me what made him do what he did. I understood. And I forgave him. Unspoken forgiveness enveloped me as I listened to him talk about his life since he had left us. He talked about his own pain and hopelessness, his long battle with alcoholism and recovery and about his belief that he could only cause us harm if he tried to reconnect. He talked about how much he had loved Mom. And finally, he asked me if I could ever forgive him for abandoning us. I said yes, and in that moment I felt complete for the first time in decades.
In my five years of full-time caregiving for my mom and stepdad, I had to call on forgiveness daily. I had to forgive my parents for being grouchy and difficult and not taking my advice. And I had to forgive myself for my anger at them, my self-pity, weight gain and loss of interest in my husband, home and friends. I rediscovered forgiveness through journaling and going for long walks around my neighborhood every morning. Forgiveness brought me back to emotional and physical health.
Forgiveness allows us to face what we have created in the past, acknowledge our mistakes and move on. Its benefits come not only from the act of forgiving, but also from asking for forgiveness and being forgiven. Sometimes, even when we humbly and sincerely ask for forgiveness, it will not be granted. Then our challenge is to accept the consequences, forgive ourselves and move on, knowing we have rewritten our memory of a past bad event and taken an important step on our own path to care.
Next footprint: Faith
Please join this conversation and share your experiences of forgiveness, especially if you are a present or former caregiver…