Content warning: this piece contains mentions of alcoholism, physical abuse, and trauma.
Forgiveness is not about moving on.
Forgiving is not the same as forgetting.
Forgiveness is not a neutral feeling.
Forgiving is not about making yourself feel better.
Robert D. Enright, Suzanne Freedman, and Julio Rique, “The Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness”
I believe in the pseudoscience of synchronicity. It’s like coincidence, except it isn’t based in chance.
I think I experienced synchronicity in the deli area of a grocery store two years ago.
I’m trying to decide if I want to buy sushi or a sandwich for lunch. I settle for some kind of chicken wrap, and I turn around to ask my friend if he wants to grab some chips too, but my friend isn’t there.
Instead, I see a tall man with glasses and less grey hair than I remember. He’s carrying an empty basket shuffling toward the rotisserie chickens right next to me. I don’t need to do a double-take to recognize him.
My blood feels like ice, but I’m overheating.
I turn around and speed walk into the nearest aisle, conveniently it’s the chip aisle. My friend has been my best friend since we were four years old, so he’s only a few steps behind me. He knows me.
“What happened? Are you okay?” my friend asks.
“I just saw my dido.”
I feel like I’m out of breath and my heart is beating in my throat.
“Are you sure?”
I’ve seen my dido through car windows and across churches, but I haven’t stood next to him in seven years. Still, I could never mistake him.
I don’t know why he was at the grocery store near my end of town. If I hadn’t taken so long to find a parking spot, maybe we never would have crossed paths.
Whatever synchronicity intended for me in that moment, I tried to ignore it. I wasn’t going to acknowledge my alcoholic grandfather whom I had cut out of my life and reconcile with him in the middle of a grocery store.
Similar to the stages of grief, psychologists have learned there are phases to forgiveness. In Paul W. Coleman’s essay “The Process of Forgiveness in Marriage and the Family” he outlines five phases starting with Identifying the Hurt.
I learned how my dido hurt others before I realized how his actions would hurt me, but I will only speak from my perspective here. I don’t know all of what he has done or said to others, and that’s not my story to tell anyway. My dido has never directly hurt me in any way. For all I know, he’s always loved me and still does. For all I know, he never wanted to hurt anyone.
Coleman outlines three effects of deep hurt:
- Loss of love or lovability
- Loss of self-esteem
- Loss of control
I experienced all of those losses in this first phase. I told myself and others I hated him for what he’s done. I felt like I couldn’t tell my parents about my how I felt after learning about his alcoholism because they looked like they were hurting more. I sat in my room crying because I didn’t know how to make it better.
Intergenerational trauma and the cyclical behaviour of abuse within families can be difficult to explain. As the youngest grandchild, my dido’s actions have been like a rippling water effect — he is the stone thrown and sinking to the bottom of the lake and I’m like a piece of driftwood pushed along by his waves.
At least I’m still floating.
“We’re going to the hospital to see Baba.”
That’s all my dad told me before we got into his rusty grey Ford Ranger.
I don’t even think I asked him why.
I don’t remember what month it was, but I think it was just after my 11th birthday. I think it was October. The leaves must have been fading from greens to yellows and oranges. There was probably a cool breeze, which would have made their air smell crisp.
I do remember walking down a hallway in the emergency room and seeing uncles, aunts, and cousins standing by a bed along one side of the bluish-grey wall.
My family stepped back and I was able to see my baba and why we had come to the hospital.
All I could focus on was purple.
My baba was covered in deep purple bruises. Some were dark, but others were fading from purples to greens and yellows.
I started crying and I reached out for her hand.
“Baba, what happened?” I asked.
She wrapped her fingers around mine and squeezed them as tightly as she could. She had gauze and bandages tied around her arm.
“Are you going to be okay?”
I looked at her face. One of her eyes was swollen shut and the darkest shade of purple I think I’ve ever seen in my life. It was so deep it was almost black.
“Please don’t cry…” my baba whispered back.
But I couldn’t stop.
“Baba just had an accident, that’s all.”
My memory blacks out after this.
Despite how hard I’ve tried to pull those memories from the depths of wherever I’ve buried them in my mind, the colours are what I remember the most: a grey truck, bluish-grey walls, and purple bruises.
This is how I learned the truth about my dido’s alcoholism.
Phase two is Confronting.
Coleman says an important part of the forgiveness process — one that most people skip because it can be so uncomfortable — is to confront the person who hurt you, either by writing letters (to be sent or not) or face-to-face.
The thought of even talking to my dido on the phone makes my body tense, never mind actually talking to him in person. When I see his number on our caller ID, I silently wish he won’t leave a message, so I don’t have to hear his voice.
I’ve rehearsed speeches quietly in the shower and to an empty house, trying to figure out what I could possibly say to the man who has refused his family’s help. What can I say to him when I told my parents I would leave the house in the middle of Christmas dinner if I saw his car pull up in the driveway?
So, I do a lot of my confrontation through writing, but not just toward my dido. I write to myself, to my parents, to my baba. I never send the letters, but getting my thoughts out helps me work out my part in all of this. For now, it’s enough. Coleman says it’s not necessary to directly confront the person who hurt you, but maybe one day I’ll need to revisit this phase or want to.
It’s difficult to think about. I don’t understand how I’m supposed to tell the patriarch of our family I was once so disappointed and ashamed of him I wanted to change my last name.
When I was growing up and we had family dinners or parties, my dido would always wear the same cologne. I thought it was just because he liked it and that’s what older men did — they put on cologne because they wanted to smell nice.
But now I think my dido drowned himself in cologne because he didn’t want anyone to smell the alcohol on his breath.
I still don’t know the name or what brand the cologne is, but I know when I walk past someone who’s wearing it my chest gets tight and my heart speeds up and I start to feel light-headed and all of the noises around me blur together.
The smell brings me back to when I was 17 years old and flew back from university for Thanksgiving dinner with my family.
We lived close to my dido, so we picked him up from his apartment on the way to my aunt’s house for dinner.
When my dido got into the car, it was like a wave of that cologne crashed into our SUV. It was more overwhelming than I ever remembered it being. It almost made it difficult to breathe.
This should have been a warning sign.
I was almost done my first serving of dinner, while my dido could barely hold his knife and fork steady enough to cut his turkey.
I tried to finish my last few bites of food, but my dad and uncle had to try to push him up the stairs because he wasn’t able to walk up by himself to get to the bathroom.
I could feel other family members staring at me as I kept my head down, my eyes focused on my plate. The orange cabbage roll blurred together with the magenta horseradish beets as tears welled up in my eyes.
I tried not to cry while I listened to the yelling coming from upstairs. I don’t know what was said, but I know sons aren’t supposed to lecture their fathers about behaviour. It was all so dramatic. All so wrong.
I walked outside to the backyard so I could finally let out the sob that had been choking me. I sat on the edge of the deck and cried into my hands. I remember it was windy and the sky was grey, so it must have been cold, but I don’t remember feeling anything. I didn’t hear the backdoor creak open.
“It’s cold, come back inside,” my mom called out to me.
I whipped my head around.
“How could he do this to us?” I shouted back at her.
I can’t remember my mom’s reply. Maybe she never said anything.
“Why does he do this?” I sobbed.
“I don’t know.”
It’s a question I’ve never gotten the answer to, and I don’t think I ever will.
When my tears finally stopped, I took a deep breath and hugged my mom before I walked back into the house. My dido had been taken away to sober up and my baba was standing in the kitchen waiting for me.
“Please don’t cry,” my baba said as she hugged me.
She told me it would be alright and when I asked her if she was okay, she told me she had no more tears left to cry over it.
Phase three is The Dialogue to Understanding.
Coleman argues if you can learn why the other person harmed you, it will be easier to forgive them. But he also warns that asking “why” can be a trap that leads to multiple answers, none of which will ever be satisfying.
At this point, I’m not ready to have a dialogue with my dido about anything, never mind to try to understand his behaviour. So, I talk to parents, my baba, my uncle and aunt, and their perspectives help fill in the gaps in my memory and understanding. Coleman says this kind of reframing can be useful in this phase.
My parents thought it was important for me to know about alcoholism and abuse at a young age, and I want to show them I can handle it. I used to leave the room and put on music when my family would talk about my dido, or they would ask me to leave, but now I stay and share my opinions. I refuse to hold back just because I’m the youngest.
It’s been almost 15 years since that night at the ER and over seven years since that Thanksgiving. I wish we had opened up this dialogue to understand what happened and to understand each other sooner.
After that Thanksgiving my family decided it was best to stop enabling my dido — it was a turning point and we gave him an ultimatum. We excluded him from our lives because he refused to acknowledge his addiction was a problem and turned down our offer to help him.
About a year later, I was taking a shower in the middle of the afternoon and all of my roommates were home. I tend to do a lot of my thinking in the shower. I was thinking about that dinner. How could it have already been a year since I had last seen my dido? I started wondering if we would ever see him again and why things had to be so final.
And then all I could see in my mind was purple bruises and bluish-grey walls.
Maybe it was a combination of my thoughts and anxiety about the impending holiday. Maybe I had opened some kind of door in my mind I had shut and locked and thrown away the key to years ago. I don’t understand how my brain works.
It felt like I was watching a movie made from shots of my memories I had forgotten existed. It was like an out-of-body experience, but I couldn’t escape my own mind. I was forced to remember walking down that ER hallway and my baba’s weak grip. The almost shameful look on her face. Her eye swollen shut.
I admitted out loud to myself, maybe for the first time ever, what had happened to my baba.
It wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t okay.
I don’t even remember if I finished washing my hair — everything kind of blurs together here. I remember it was a beautiful sunny day and it seemed almost ironic as I video called my parents in tears, inconsolable. I remember I was wearing my favourite royal blue sweatshirt and snot and tears stained the sleeves and collar. My roommates must have heard me sobbing. I hope I didn’t worry them too much.
I told my parents everything I could remember: the ER hallway, the bruises, and how I felt so afraid and confused. They told me they wished they knew how to help me now and had known what to do back then.
“I’ve always wondered if it was right to bring you there that day,” my dad said softly. “Maybe it wasn’t.”
I’ve always wondered that too.
Phase four is Forgiving.
Coleman says forgiveness is less like a final step and more like an “awkward” leap of faith. The act of forgiveness itself is short and it’s everything that comes after that makes a difference.
I like to think I’ve forgiven my dido and that my forgiveness would mean something to him.
I don’t hate my dido anymore. I’m trying to focus on myself and talk to people in my life who can help me work through this process.
Coleman also says a big part of forgiveness is trust. I’m not sure if I can ever trust my dido again because I’m not sure if he’d ever tell me the truth about his mistakes and shortcomings, but trying to forgive him for what he’s done has brought me closer to family. Especially my baba. My beautiful, gentle, and strong baba.
Instead of dropping my baba off at her apartment after our lunch date last year, I spent some time with her and we talked. Her apartment is small, but she’s made it feel like a home.
It’s the third place she’s lived since she left my dido. First it was the room across from mine, then an even smaller apartment than this one, and now here.
As soon as you walk in, there’s a wall filled with framed photos of her children’s and grandchildren’s weddings, high school and university graduations, and half a decade’s worth of me in my dance costumes. I’ve seen all of these photos countless times before, but when I visit I always stop to look at them. They’re snapshots of milestones and happy memories. It’s my favourite part of her apartment.
We sat across from each other in her living room and I can’t remember how we got onto the topic of my dido and death, but we did. The sun was streaming in through her window, heating up the tiny apartment. I could feel myself starting to sweat through my hoodie.
She said when the time comes, we’ll need to help him when he’s going to need it the most. She said she hopes we’ll be there — all of us — to work through it.
The thought of that made me sweat even more. It’s the one thing that I think stops me from fully knowing if I’ve forgiven him: will I be upset when he’s gone?
“I have nothing to do with him anymore, but you’re still his family,” my baba said.
It’s true, I am.
And that’s kind of the whole point of this process, for me at least: working to forgive so I can move on and be there for my family.
As far as I know, my baba has made it to the end of the forgiveness process and let go.
I hope one day I can get there too.
Phase five is Letting Go.
Coleman says no matter how much we’ve forgiven someone, the hurt can still linger. Letting go of all of the pain and resentment is the ultimate step to moving on. The hurt individual needs to come to terms with their pain and create a new life.
For me, this means letting go of the idea of reconciling with my dido and learning to live my life without him. I’ll admit I struggle with that a lot.
Where’s the line between making healthy choices to stop enabling someone’s behaviour and punishing them? When people ask about my grandparents, do I tell them I only have three? If my dido would have made eye contact with me at that grocery store would he have even known it was me?
I know forgiveness is not about making myself feel better, but these are questions I think about that stop me from fully letting go. The “what ifs” that send me spiraling and wondering the unanswerable and selfish “whys.”
Why do people do things that hurt others? Why is this so hard? Why me?
There’s a family photo in our house, tucked in between some old books in a basement room full of holiday decorations, old furniture, and clothes for donation.
I think I was five or six when it was taken. I remember it was in a fancy studio and I had to pose on the floor in an uncomfortable position the whole time because I was the smallest and youngest.
Everyone is dressed formally — I had to wear a purple velvet dress — and we’re all smiling, but I remember the fight that happened before the shutter clicked. I can’t remember what was said, but I know people yelled and I think someone cried. Thinking about it now, I feel bad for the photographer.
To an outsider, it might look like the perfect family photo.
The photo used to be in our living room, but we took it out of the frame and put it down in that room seven years ago.
I know one of the guidelines for forgiveness is to not forget the past, but I think there’s a fine line between giving up on the past and letting go of it.
I never had a close relationship with my dido. Unlike my older cousins, I have no happy memories of trips to the water park or weekend sleepovers. I’m not even sure those are things they actually did.
I think if I let go of anything, I wouldn’t be letting go of a true connection, but rather an idea of what my dido was supposed to be.
I can’t remember how old I was, but I remember he made a speech at one of his birthday dinners about feeling grateful for his family. Last Christmas, he left a message on our answering machine — his voice was cracking, and it sounded like he had been crying — wishing us a good day and a new year of good health.
If I were to truly let go, I would need to let go of the idea that he regrets his decisions, maybe one day he’ll want to get help, and maybe we could have a real relationship for the first time.
For me to really reach the end of the forgiveness process, I not only need to let go of the hurt and the questions I’ll never have answers to, but also the good memories of my dido and the idea of what could have been.
This is my understanding of what it takes to forgive someone you love and what can happen when you commit to the process of forgiving:
Forgiveness can seem endless.
Forgiving can encourage connection.
Forgiveness can break your heart.
Forgiving can help you make peace with the past.