“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
— Mahatma Gandhi
The Journey to Forgiveness
My mother always had a way with words. She called me awful names and used words like a weapon of mass destruction, designed to leave you wounded and defenseless. I remember her words felt like a rusty dagger sawing through my heart. When she snarled at me, her eyes blazed with disdain and jealousy, my soul would clench tightly, as if to protect itself from the brutal onslaught.
My mother was both a loving and malevolent woman with her children. She was the mom who sewed all the costumes for the school play. She was also the mom who threw hateful words at her children that landed like a million tiny paper cuts on our hearts, leaving an ache dulled only by our tears. Her physical punishment paled in comparison to her vicious tongue.
Something hard to reconcile about my mother is that, while she was physically and emotionally cruel to her children, she was quite passive to the outside world. She never stood up to anyone who slighted her. Her inability to speak up in her own defense was in dramatic contrast to how she spoke to her defenseless children. I know now, years after she passed away, that my mom felt powerless in this world. Her undiagnosed mental illness of bipolar disease kept her a virtual prisoner.
When I was fourteen, Social Services stepped in and removed us from our mother’s home. I am so thankful to my favorite teacher, Diane Marshall, for stepping into the gap and saving my life. The rest of my childhood was filled with extreme difficulty, but in that moment, my brother and I were freed from the monster my mother was becoming. Her life after we left was a downward spiral into drugs, abusive relationships, and loss. Ironically, without her children to bear the brunt of her anger and misery, she turned her pain inward and abused herself.
As I entered my junior year of high school, my mother reentered my life. Her life was still as messy as ever. Yet she seemed willing to establish a relationship with me without abuse and torment. These years were difficult for both of us, yet we were determined to salvage our relationship and create something new. When I asked my father why my mother was so full of hatred and anger, he encouraged me to look into her upbringing. When I finally did, I learned my mom was the unhappy, abused, and neglected child of an alcoholic father and angry mother. After learning this information, my heart started to soften toward her.
In the ensuing twenty years, my mother and I would go through our ups and downs as we figured out how to love each other. We spoke on the phone almost every day. When my husband and I adopted our first daughter in 2006, my mother spent many hours at our home helping me navigate the first months of motherhood. She was a doting grandmother. In 2009, I was with her in the room when she was diagnosed with Stage IIB pancreatic cancer.
I felt deep inside of me that it was time for me to move on from my anger and frustration with my mother. I resolved to release my mother from my expectations of her. I decided to allow her the space to be herself with the goal of improving our relationship. This journey would take me four-and-a-half years. We would not truly resolve our relationship with each other until seven months before she took her last breath in my home, under my mournful watch.
Forgiveness – Seeking to Understand
“Come stay with us, Mommy,” I hear myself say as I looked into my mother’s eyes. They are yellow with jaundice. Her cheeks are sunken, her skin dry and wrinkled. I pull her into an awkward embrace, feeling the sharpness of her bones against me. She is dying. For the first time in her five-year battle, I can feel the hopelessness settling over her soul. She is losing the fight.
“I’m so happy to hear you say that, Stephanie,” she says weakly. “I was talking to your Aunt Marilyn today, telling her I was so weak and lonely. I need help.”
I have prepared myself for a fight before I make the request for her to live with us. My mother, throughout her cancer battle, has been fiercely independent and often refuses my help, so I am certain she would not come to me and ask for it. That is not the way she is built. She needs me to offer myself to her. It’s as if she knows her presence is unwelcome, so she waits for me to invite her chaos into my home.
She was not a great mother. She was a bitter and angry woman. I knew that helping her was going to require my forgiveness first. I needed to let go of my dream of her becoming the mother I wanted her to be in my life. The mother she never could be and strived to be. In the last five years of her life, my mother tried to be better. My daughters became her pride and joy. They were her redemption. Through them, she was the doting and attentive grandmother they needed. She gave them only good and kind words, as well as love, hugs, and kisses. She made herself available to them, and I enjoyed watching her find her goodness through them, even when she failed to show me the same.
“I know you need help, Mom,” I told her, holding back my tears. “Let me help you, please.”
She looked at me with sad eyes. “I know I am not a good person. I am mean and hard. I am difficult to live with. I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable because I can’t control my mouth.”
“You’re entitled to be mean. You’re old,” we laughed.
We both know I lied. She is mean. Her comment is a warning shot. She does not want to change. She was telling me to be prepared. I am. I knew her. She was my mother.
But I chose to forgive. I chose to deal with her differently. I chose, in that moment, to fill my mom’s world with light and love. I let go of who I wanted her to be and decided that I would truly meet her where she was at that moment. In that moment, she was a dying woman, only missing the date and time. I vowed that I would be a doting daughter and give her every convenience I can afford.
In the final six months of her life, I gave my mother all the attention she wanted. If she wanted me to stay home from work, I did. When she wanted to buy a new car, I took her to the dealership and wrote the check for the down payment. When she wanted a specific orange sherbet from the store, my husband and I searched far and wide until we found it for her. There was no request that was too big or small.
Many movies depict all of the strife and pain of a lifetime being resolved within two hours. My relationship with my mother took six months to reconcile. However, through forgiveness and my decision to meet her where she was, my mother and I were able to forge an amazing relationship grounded in love, respect, and admiration. One moment in particular stood out for me.
During the end of her life, my mother would frequently try to get out of the bed on her own in the middle of the night. By this time, we were running a video feed from her room to ours. On night, I heard her trying to get out of bed. I flew down the stairs to her room and caught her right before she fell. As I was putting her back to bed, promising to bring her a bowl of orange sherbet, she said to me, “You are so sweet. How could I not see that all these years?” It was a moment I will never forget. I gently told her, “Mommy, go easy on yourself. We were both too trapped in our own pain to really see each other. We’re in a good place now.”
My mother took her final breath on July 4, 2015. I spent her final night with her, lying in bed, comforting her through the pain, and talking with the hospice doctors. On that morning, before she died, I attended to her needs, combed her hair and made sure she was comfortable. As the last breath left her emaciated body, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss and gratitude. I was grateful that through so much pain and resentment, my mother and I had found our way to each other. She left this planet surrounded in love.
Forgiveness to Freedom
When my mother left this planet, our relationship was restored. I do not forget the awfulness of my childhood. That pain remains a large part of my actions as a mother. Yet there are experiences my mother gave me that I hold tightly as I raise my daughters. She loved to do special things with me like have a beautician come to our house every two weeks to do my hair or plan an amazing day of pampering for my thirteenth birthday followed by a fancy dinner at a French restaurant. Her commitment to my autistic brother was all-consuming. She never wavered in her duties to keep him safe and secure.
Forgiving my mother allowed me to see the good in her. It freed me from the anger that paralyzes and impedes growth. I forgave her not because she was dying a slow and horrible death, but because I wanted her to leave this world knowing she was not the compilation of her mistakes; she was an imperfect soul who did the best she could with what she learned. Her life mattered, and that made me feel good. That is the beauty of forgiveness.
We all have limited stores of energy. How we choose to spend that energy is a strong predictor of how successful we will be in achieving our goals. When you are consumed with anger and bitterness toward someone or a situation, how much time do you spend speaking with others about it? How much time do you spend thinking about it? How productive are you when you are paralyzed by anger?
Forgiveness is a process. We don’t simply utter the words “I forgive you” and magically feel better. We must allow ourselves the space to explore our feelings and resolve them. Too often, we place unrealistic expectations on how fast we need to process our feelings to get to forgiveness. Forgiveness requires that we accept and work through our anger, make the intentional decision to forgive, decide how we will resolve our anger to get to forgiveness, and finally release the pain we carry inside.
When you face your anger, you decide to examine what anger has done to you. Have you suffered ill health? Have your perceptions of the world changed? Have you been obsessed with the wrong that was done to you? Allow yourself to feel your anger. How has that anger affected your life? Once you get in touch with the cause of your feelings, you can now move toward the decision to forgive.
The decision to forgive is a monumental step in releasing yourself from the pain you feel. It is important to understand that forgiveness is not about forgetting or releasing anyone from accountability. Rather, it is you, releasing yourself from the responsibility to carry the burden of another person’s transgression.
Allowing yourself to understand the other person’s side of the issue is important for getting you to a place where the painful event has a background or a reason. For example, if your best friend, under pressure of work and family, lashes out at you during a conversation, you may be hurt, but you can empathize with her overwhelmed feelings. You may ask your friend for an apology, but it will come from the understanding that she was under a tremendous amount of pressure. Understanding my mom’s chaotic and abusive background helped me understand that she struggled with overcoming the cycle of bad parenting. This understanding opened the door for me to see my mom through a lens of compassion without releasing her of accountability for her actions.
The last part of forgiveness is letting go. Letting go releases you from the feelings of anger and resentment. This phase does not absolve the person of guilt or consequences. This last part is you taking back control of your emotions and well-being. You can enjoy the freedom from the pain and suffocation that anger inflicts on you and your life.
Forgiveness is a process we must all go through at some point in our lives. When we hold on to anger and resentment toward others, we stifle our ability to grow and thrive. Engaging in the active process of forgiveness requires us to understand our anger, empathize with the perpetrator, decide to forgive, and move beyond the incident that hurt us. Forgiveness does not absolve the other party of responsibility. Forgiveness releases you from the burden of carrying the anger. Once you release the anger, you are able to embrace your journey of achieving your dreams and becoming your best self.
Stephanie Walton is a business leader, personal coach, and author of Succeeding with Passion: Simple Strategies to Drive Your Life, Relationships, and Career Forward. Visit her at www.SucceedingwithPassion.com.