Before answering this question, let’s take a good look at the word forgiveness. According to Dictonary.com, forgiveness is the act of forgiving. Digging deeper, to forgive means “to grant pardon for an offense.” An alternate definition is “to cease to feel resentment against.” This last one I want to focus on here, because guess what? Letting go and forgiving someone for what they did wrong means to stop resenting that person for hurting you as well as letting go of the hurt itself.
What? Did you think forgiveness was just about accepting the other person’s apology and moving on? Sorry to tell you this, but forgiveness requires much more than that.
It requires you to challenge yourself to see and do things differently. To change how you feel about and how you act towards this person who hurt you. When you do the work of truly forgiving someone, the freedom from the weight of bitterness, anger and resentment is the sweetest joy.
Let me explain. Now, we all know that relationships are VERY complicated. Why? Because the minute we open ourselves up to loving someone; to have connection with that person, we also open ourselves up to pain. The potential for being hurt is there. And when the people we love hurt us, it can be devastating. And we humans are great at holding on to anger and pain. Anger and hurt cover the love that is there. Forgiveness is a calling to let go of anger and hurt so that you can move forward.
As kids, we don’t understand why it’s so hard to let go of things. The thing I miss the most about being a kid is the easy ability to let go and move on. Think about it. A baby who is learning to walk falls down. She cries for a few minutes, stops, gets up and tries again. It seems so simple. Babies don’t hold on to their pain. They literally “forget” and move on.
We adults aren’t like that. As we get older, learn more, experience more of the world (and the people in it) – we hold on to more. More emotion, more pain, more resentment. We also think about things over and over again and literally drive ourselves crazy trying to figure out how we arrived at the place where we’re hurt, sad and angry. It’s because of that very process that forgiveness is SO hard. But, I’ve got news for you – you CAN forgive. It just takes a lot of energy, determination and work.
One person I was called to forgive was my father. My relationship with him has always been complicated. He comes from a generation of people who don’t talk about their feelings and are focused on providing for our family.
I, on the other hand, am someone who wants to be emotionally connected with others. As an introvert and highly sensitive person, I wanted and needed nurturing, but didn’t receive that from my parents. Forget my sensitivity, as a kid, I just wanted my mom and dad to tell me they loved me and hug me when I was hurt. I didn’t get that. They weren’t affectionate or open about their feelings. So, with time I just took care of myself emotionally and stopped trusting my father. Other factors in my not trusting my father included: his alcoholism, cheating on my mother and arguing with her. My father isn’t a bad person. Like all people, we have our issues.
When my mother passed away in September 2002, I was angry that I was left with my father. That he was the parent I had because I didn’t like him. I couldn’t stand him. And honestly, I really wondered if I even loved him. I found him controlling, demanding and not willing to give of himself emotionally. He always said, “I’m the father and what I say goes.” My parents broke up when I was 17. And because he expected me to go looking for him (and I didn’t see it that way), I had very little contact with him from ages 17 – 24.
In 2007, about 5 years after my mother died, my father had surgery to remove clots in his leg. I went to see him in the hospital with my 6 year old. My father was unconscious in the bed. He looked weak. Vulnerable.
And it hit me. He’s the only parent I’ve got left.
In that moment, I knew that if I didn’t try to have a relationship with him, I’d miss the chance at a better one. The kind that I craved as a kid. And since I lost the chance to have a close relationship with my mother before she died, I knew this was my last shot with my father. I still had time to heal this.
It started out very slowly. He and I had different views on relationships. My father still held on to the belief that because he was the “FATHER” I had to chase him to spend time with him. That he didn’t have to do the emotional work. I believe that relationships take two people. So even when he didn’t see relationships the way I did, I was still determined to forgive him. I exchanged numbers with my father and got his address. It was SO awkward to start this process because I’d been disconnected from my father for years by then. It took baby steps to allow him back into my circle and my heart.
The journey to forgive him was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but I did it. I had to understand many things about forgiveness – what it is, what it isn’t and what it takes to get there. Keep reading to learn how I did it.
Forgiveness is a Process
It is not a one-time event where you decide (or someone else tells you) “okay, what you did doesn’t hurt me anymore and now we can be happy together again.” Ahh, sorry to tell you, but forgiving someone doesn’t work that way. I know that the same way it was a process having an unhealthy relationship with my father, it would be a process to have a healthy one, too.
Forgiveness Requires Acknowledgment
I had to admit there was something to work on. If I was ever going to have a good relationship with my father, I needed to be real with myself that this was something I wanted to work on. That not having a good connection with him was a problem for me. And it really was. You’ve got to admit that there’s something that’s not working. That there’s a problem that needs fixing. To acknowledge that you have mixed feelings about this relationship. And that you want to make this better.
Forgiveness Requires Decisiveness
When you decide to forgive someone, you do it over and over again. You’re on a forgiveness journey. So you choose over and over again. In the beginning, it will feel like you’re choosing to forgive moment to moment. Then minute to minute. Day to day. It’s an on-going decision. Every day I chose to continue trying to forgive my father. It wasn’t easy, but I kept going.
Forgiveness Requires Understanding
Understanding that my father was human. That he made mistakes. I needed to understand that he had issues, just like I did. Going on this journey, I needed to understand – myself, my father and the process. That we BOTH had things to work on.
Forgiveness Requires Time
Because it took years for our relationship to get to the breaking point, it also took years to have the kind of relationship (today) with my father that I’d have liked as a kid. You need to invest time – to learn, think and heal. Time to reflect, communicate and listen.
Forgiveness Requires Honesty
This one is HUGE! You can’t forgive someone without honesty. It is about looking at the facts of the situation. Not just about what the other person did to hurt you, but also how you played a role in the process. If and how you held on to the pain. Pain is something that we hold onto for a long time because it’s like a smoking pile of wood. We fan the flames whenever we review the event and the feelings that came from it. I needed to be honest with myself about why I was upset with my father. I also had to be honest about how tightly I held on to being angry. And that every conversation I had with anyone about my father kept the fire going.
Forgiveness Requires Letting Go
One of the hardest things for me was letting go of the many reasons for not wanting a relationship with my father. The truth was that I didn’t trust him. Because of his poor relationship to my mother – the drinking, cheating and arguing. I had to let go of my anger in order to move forward. To wipe the slate clean specifically around my parent’s relationship. After all, by the time my mother died, it had been 6 years since they broke up. There was no way for him to repair that and it wasn’t my job to hold onto the anger for it. I HAD to let it go as something from the past that I couldn’t fix. There was NOTHING I could do about it. There is nothing you can do about the history of your relationship with the person who hurt you. You need to let the hurt go.
Forgiveness Requires Compassion
In order to truly forgive my father for the way he treated my mother (and me), I had to look at him with compassion. My father is also someone who was abandoned by his own father and has had to learn on his own how to be a father. I had to remember that and have compassion for the little boy who was hurt because his OWN father left him down. And when he upsets me, I try to think of that little boy. And it helps me keep having compassion for him. Not only did I need it for him, I needed compassion for myself. I’m not perfect. So, I needed to remember that if I needed a break, it was okay.
Forgiveness Requires Talking and Listening
I wondered about whether or not to include these two. Because I was the only one on my forgiveness journey. When we usually think about the process of forgiveness, we think about two people – the one who was hurt and the person who did the hurting. And the person who did the hurting saying “I’m sorry” and “can you forgive me?”. So if this is the case with you, and you want to forgive someone who HAS asked to be forgiven, then you need communication. You NEED to talk to that person AND been willing to listen to their perspective. You also need to spend time reflecting on your own about your actions and theirs.
To be clear, my father DID not (and STILL hasn’t) directly asked for my forgiveness. I reflected on this. A LOT. Did I really need him to ask (read: BEG) me for it? Did I really need him to say he was sorry? And the answers to those questions was no. I didn’t need him to say sorry or ask me for forgiveness.
I could still forgive him WITHOUT that. I also had to accept that he may NEVER ask me. I had to be okay with that. For me, it wasn’t about making him grovel at my feet, begging me to forgive him. (That crap only happens in movies anyway. And this is real life we’re talking about here.) I didn’t want to punish him for what he did in the past. I wanted to let it go. Because I was tired of being angry.
A New Beginning
My goal of forgiveness was about letting go of past pain to have a relationship with him now. Because we both have breath in our bodies, the opportunity and possibility of a good, healthy relationship with my father him was still there. So, I forgave him. And this cleared a way for us to renew our relationship as father and daughter.
Today, I can report that I have a very good relationship with my father. And honestly, it’s the kind I’d have wanted as a kid. Where we BOTH participate. He calls me several times a week and I make coffee for him several times a month. He comes over to hang out with me and my boys for several hours. We talk a lot about the past and our current lives. Don’t get me wrong, he still gets on my nerves. Because there are STILL things we disagree on. And that’s okay.
Now our relationship is sweeter, kinder and more honest. We spend time together because we enjoy each other’s company. And we wouldn’t have this wonderful relationship now if I hadn’t made that decision long ago to forgive him. I’m so grateful I did. Because now, my father sees and nurtures who I am. As a daughter, as a mother and as a person. He gets to witness my relationship with my boys and nurture his relationship with them. He can really be Grandpa.
I’d like to leave you with one final thought. As I’ve been writing this, I’ve been reflecting on the saying “forgiveness isn’t for the other person; it’s for you.” But, I think a little differently now:
Forgiveness is for you, yes, but it impacts every person that comes into contact with you.
It has a ripple effect. And anyone that you connect with will benefit. You stand to gain the most from forgiving someone else. It makes you stronger, more compassionate, more understanding of the vulnerability of others. It makes you more open to love and the world around you. You can be happier. Forgiveness is a beautifully difficult journey. And it’s SO worth it.