The soul cannot forgive until it
is restored to wholeness and health.
In the absence of love - how can one forgive?

With an abundance of love, starting with one's self,
forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity.
-Nancy Richards

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Forgive and Forget?

Forgiveness is a long, complicated, and confusing process. If and when we do forgive, do we ever really forget? Or, is there a healing power in remembering?

Remembering doesn't mean that we remain stuck in one place. For me, the true miracle of forgiveness is the ability to accept and make peace with the truth of the past.

Our history constructs our emotional self; therefore, our memories can be the catalyst to reconstruct our view of the world, for growth and for change.

Rather than wasting my energy on trying to forget, I spent my emotional currency on keeping myself safe, on healing - and then forgiving - but always I've remembered. My memories are a great reminder of just how far I have come.

Forgiveness doesn't mean forgetting, or excusing, or giving up our safety. We move toward forgiveness when we have healed enough to experience some sense of peace.

Wishing everyone peace.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Acknowledgment and Abuse

Help me Mom!

How many times did I utter this unanswered plea? Yet, the physical abuse from which I sought relief, paled in comparison to the emotional prison where I remained - as long as I looked to my jailers to set me free.

Long into adulthood, I attempted to seek validation from my family. I tried to do their emotional work, rather than focusing on my own. Acknowledgment, support, and help with healing – that is what I needed.

The day came when I stopped trying to pathologically receive support where it wasn’t (my family) and started receiving support where it was (elsewhere).

By trusting others to listen to and validate my injuries, I journeyed forward to the healing I deserved.

With growth, comes loss. Sometimes we must die to the old to be born anew.

Wishing everyone peace, love, and acknowledgment - wherever you find it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Answering Questions About Estranged Family Members

Answering simple questions about our families can by quite uncomfortable. Through trial and error, I have learned that the less said - the better.

Estrangement is an unnatural loss. When a loved one dies, others acknowledge the loss with tenderness and compassion. But, when a parent and child become estranged, bystanders usually don't understand the dynamics of the separation. They often assume that the adult child is responsible for his or her own loss.

Sometimes adult survivors of childhood abuse do make the painful decision to estrange from a family member. We may find that even after placing clear and respectful boundaries, we are still in jeopardy of physical and/or emotional violence.

Other times, family members can exile the individual who speaks the truth about the violence in the family.

Regardless of the painful circumstances that lead to family cut-offs, dealing with the embarrassment of exile can prove to be a challenge. People are often judgmental towards those who don't have a relationship with a family member.

Nonetheless, I find that when strangers or acquaintances inquire about family members, it is usually like the grocery checker asking, "How are you today?"

The question is really just about making conversation. Consequently, I usually answer as I do in the grocery store, "Good." Then I change the subject.

Sometimes, an acquaintance has heard about my estrangement, and may ask, "Why can't you get along with your family? They seem nice to me!"

It took a great deal of heartache and practice for me to learn to say, "What happened between my family and me is between my family and me. I don't wish to discuss it."

I've also run into old family friends who ask innocent questions and I don't know the answers such as, "How can I get in touch with your mother."

In these cases, I usually say, "I'm estranged from my mother and I prefer not to talk about it."

Developing a circle of supportive confidants is very important. My friends and therapist helped me move past my defensiveness, and to stand confidently in my decision to protect myself from abuse. Handling inquires about my family became an exercise in honoring my own boundaries. Eventually, my embarrassment faded as my confidence grew.

Wishing everyone peace, love, and safety.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Mother, I Forgive You

Written (but not shared) during the fourteen-year estrangement from my family.

Mother, I forgive you. Oh it wasn't easy; it took nearly ten years, but through the grace of God – I have arrived. It was a long journey, yet I honor and respect each necessary step along the way.

I thought we started out right, you and me. As a child you were the center of my universe. I felt safe and loved. Each evening you tucked me into bed with a good-night kiss. You provided holiday magic, and delighted in my mischievousness. I remember the excitement I felt as we walked together for my first day of school. Then tragically, dad died and with him died my childhood and my relationship with you. There were no more bedtimes, or kisses; all the passages mothers and daughters share were simply gone. There was, however, a new man in your life. Year after year, the betrayal felt incomprehensible as I watched you - as you silently watched him - beat and torture my brothers and me. Through all the violence and betrayal, I never stopped longing for your motherly love. I missed so much. I traveled the road to womanhood alone, without your guidance or example of what it meant to be a woman, a wife or a mother. My first period, dating, child birth; these are experiences I had alone; other milestones I missed all together.

Long into adulthood, like a moth to a flame, I was forever drawn to you - craving your love, a love that never came my way. Sadly, when our relationship became too unsafe, I walked away from years of abuse, from you, and my family of origin to find a healthier life.

Oh, but I turned it around Mom. I read, I learned, I looked to others for support and I created a family of my own. I had two precious daughters and we've walked through life together every step of the way. I rejoice that all my hard work has paid off and I can celebrate with them a loving relationship. I have the opportunity to show them what it is to be a woman, and a mother. My longing for a close mother-daughter relationship has been realized with them. I feel very blessed.

As I've shared with my girls all the important events and passages in their lives, I have simultaneously experienced joy and sorrow. Joy at their milestones, happy to guide, advise and protect; I brim with pride and enthusiasm for them. Then quietly, I mourn for myself. Yet, I am the proud matriarch of a new family legacy.

People told me both while I was still seeing you and after I stopped, that I needed to forgive you. Forgiveness haunted me. Whenever I heard the daunting words: "You must forgive," I felt the responsibility to forgive immediately. Yet each time I tried, I failed miserably. After years of misery and burying my pain in order to pardon you, I abandoned my quest to forgive. As long as I carried unhealed wounds – forgiveness would have to wait.

Over a period of many years within the protective cocoon of my "family of choice," I was able to walk through the healing process that eventually set me free to forgive. In the safety of my loving friends and extended family, I shared my story. I expressed my hurt and my anger. With my family of choice, I mourned all my losses, honored my pain and moved forward.

Each day, I journeyed further down the path of recovery. I made great strides towards forgiveness when I realized, I didn’t have to trust you enough to resume a relationship with you in order to forgive you. Forgiveness was not dependant on your willingness to co-operate, nor did I have to excuse what you had done. I could forgive you and not see you.

The mother-daughter bond is I’m sure the strongest of all human bonds. I feel the loss of the mother you could have been. Although abuse and betrayal stand between us and make a relationship with you unsafe, I love you. I think of you daily and you are in my thoughts and in my prayers.

Forgiveness is not an event of immediacy. It's not a bolt of light that brightens the soul and burns the pain to ashes. Forgiveness is a process. When it is all said and done, the final process was an act of love: love of myself and love of my mother.

Wishing everyone, peace, love, and healing.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Healing from Family Estrangement

Sometimes it seems like the soul-crushing pain of estrangement will hold on forever, and we ask, "How long will this pain last?"

Healing from my own family exile was a long journey, in part, because it was also necessary to heal from years of abuse. Each stage of my recovery brought new forms of discomfort that seemed as if they would never end.

Today, just like watching a flower grow on fast-forward film, I can see all the growth that was not perceptible at the time.

At first, I was numb from the shock. It seemed that no bandage was large enough to cover what felt like the amputation of a limb. Mark Sichel, author of Healing from Family Rifts: Ten Steps to Finding Peace After Being Cut Off from a Family Member, describes this occurrence as "Acute Stress Disorder."

My embarrassment, and fear of judgment felt crippling. Yet, I knew that talking about the pain was essential for healing. Eventually, I took a risk and found safe, and supportive people to speak with.

I began the long process of healing and reconstructing a life without my family. I went back and forth through the typical stages of loss: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, before my real grief work began. My periods of deep mourning usually resulted in spurts of great emotional growth.

Nonetheless, I was disheartened every time the void created by the absence of my family would rear its heartbreaking head. I re-mourned my losses, and learned to accept that I'd always feel some degree of the void. I reminded myself of those who did love me, and thought about how grateful I was for the loving connections I had in my life.

I could measure my growth in terms of years. How was my emotional health compared to one year before? Five years before? And so on. Gauging my growth was a wonderful way to keep perspective on my healing.

After fourteen years of estrangement, I did reconcile with my family. Today, I can see the value of my estrangement. Time afforded me the opportunity to heal from my abuse within the safety of a protective cocoon. I learned to individuate from my mother - to make decisions based on what was best for me - and to parent myself. During my time apart from my family - I gained a better understanding of my family members, and our family dynamics - all viewed from a more healed and objective vantage point.

Part of healing is simply being present with the pain - accepting what is - and reinvesting in a new future.

Wishing everyone peace, love, hope, and healing.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Holiday Stress

The pain of family estrangement is often heightened during the holiday season. I clearly remember the anguish I experienced during the initial stages of my fourteen-year estrangement from my entire family of origin. The abrupt loss of my mother, three brothers, and grandparents - months before the holidays - left me paralyzed. The prospect of spending the holidays alone - without any family, or life-long traditions - seemed daunting. What would I do with my two young children? My therapist stated matter-of-factly, "You will create new holiday traditions."

This simple statement seemed like an impossible task.

The first year, I did nothing. I wrongly assumed someone would come to my rescue and invite my daughters and me for the holidays. The next year, I took matters into my own hands, and invited another family we had know for years, for Thanksgiving and Christmas day. They were happy to accept our invitation, because they didn't have any family in the area. This began an annual tradition that provided my children with a new "family of choice."

Granted, the first few years were still difficult. I continued to mourn for my family rather than to appreciate the people right in front of me; however, in time, I realized that I had built new traditions that were far more fun and loving than the old. I made sure my kids anticipated the same holiday activities each year - cookies, music, decorating, planning a menu, and performing community service. Community involvement gave us the sense of being a part of something bigger than we are.

Today, I look forward to the holidays with great excitement and we all look back over the years with warmth, and laughter, reminiscing about prior holidays and the fun we have had together.

My mother's sister is the only family member from whom I was not estranged. The second year of my estrangement, she began including my children and me in her annual Christmas Eve celebration, and has for every year since. I will be forever grateful for her love, support, and our shared history.

My circumstances taught me to appreciate the loving people who are in my life, and not to take my blessings for granted. I've learned through this experience not only to reflect on that for which I am grateful, but to express my words of appreciation to those who have enriched my life.

The Holidays can be the best - or worst time of year.

Wishing everyone peace, love, and the sharing of old, and new traditions!

Forgiving on our own Timetable

Forgiveness can be a scary concept. I was afraid to forgive my abusers, because to me forgiving meant that I could be hurt again. At the time, I was right. My attempts at forced forgiveness left me open to re-injury. I hadn't healed enough to protect myself.

The pressure I felt to forgive my abusers left me frozen in painful limbo - unable to heal or authentically forgive.

The day came when I reached the end of my endurance. I decided not to forgive and my life changed forever!

The decision I made to place my own well-being first, and to nurse myself back to emotional health, sent me on a healing journey that eventually freed me to forgive.