Updated: Apr 11, 2019
"Who is that man in pictures?
Dark wavy hair and wide set eyes
Towering over others
Brilliantly wearing my smile
Always boastful and proud
Yet suffering from shadows that haunted you within”
Those words are the opening lines to a poem I wrote in 1998 titled, Letter to My Father. The inspiration poured out of me one night while I was rummaging through pictures to make a family collage. When I suddenly came across some photos of my father, whom I had not seen or spoken to since I was eight years old, I was overwhelmed with deep grief over the loss of his presence in my life. It actually came as quite a shock to me because I thought it was all behind me.
As I studied the pictures, one of him in his uniform in Vietnam, one hanging out with his drinking buddies, and another with my mother on their wedding day, I searched his face for something familiar. I sobbed uncontrollably as I thought about the kind of hard-hearted man he had to be to abandon his children. I never understood it as a child, but now that I'm a parent, it absolutely took my breath. He made no contact, made no effort, and contributed nothing to our care. And that’s exactly how his response made me feel, like I was nothing. Through the dam burst of tears, I typed feverishly on my laptop releasing years of pain from my soul.
“Years of harbored hatred
A desperate desire to become someone great
A woman worthy of the love of the man who left her behind
The ultimate betrayal
Dying before you see the woman I struggled to become for you
To make you proud enough to come back
To make you ashamed that you were not a man of your word
Still I suffer from your choices”
For all of my life, I can remember feeling two things about my father. I was either angry or I was determined. First, I was mad that he left us to suffer without any regard or any type of support. Then, I was motivated and determined to exact revenge and show him what he missed out on. But this outpouring was supremely unexpected. My dad had died two years before this letter was written. He was already in the ground when we were notified but even when I visited his grave and living quarters, I left there feeling numb and unemotional. I thought the chapter was closed and I was done with unraveling his knotted mess in my life. I was surprised to learn there was still some residue smoldering within.
This was the day my forgiveness process truly started. I didn’t know it at the time but God took minutes to walk me through an emotional and spiritual excavation that could have taken me years to do on my own. I was unaware and ill equipped but God redeemed the time and protected the legacy of my children. I should insert here that God is no respecter of persons. So He did not do this because of my own goodness or righteousness. During that time, I didn’t even have a real relationship with Him. I knew of Him, but didn’t know Him intimately. I certainly did not feel like I belonged to Him. But at a time when it pleased God, He facilitated the experience I needed to become the woman He wanted me to be.
It would be many years later that I learned about the 18-step forgiveness process academically. Psychologists determined that forgiving someone is an elaborate internal process where you decide to pardon the person who hurt you and let go of any resentment. Emotional trauma is very real and dealing with it looks different for each person. Forgiving them benefits you and does not justify or excuse their behavior. Though it starts with a decision, it’s not always as simple as, mind over matter. I didn’t know I was still harboring anything so I couldn’t actively choose to let it go.
Looking back over that experience and coupling it with what I learned in graduate school, I will share some key learning points in an effort to help someone who might be struggling with forgiving someone who hurt them deeply. I am not a licensed physician or qualified to diagnose or treat anyone. But I know what God did for me and hope that sharing my story will also help someone else get free.
“Years later feeling the loss so profoundly
Wondering if you thought of me
Carrying the burdens of your soul in my heart
To act as a shield from the love I desperately need to be free
Wondering when this legacy of heartache
Will be purged from the footnotes of my story
Begging the Lord for insight to relinquish
This heirloom of mistrust and separateness
So as not to pass on to my offspring”
Step One: Confront the Truth
The first thing I learned about the forgiveness process is that it’s important to recognize the things we tell ourselves psychologically as a way to cope with the personal hurt. When I was younger, I wasn’t mature enough to admit that I needed and wanted my dad in my life. I told myself I didn’t need him or his love. I wasn’t comfortable admitting I was angry because that meant he actually did matter. But I was comfortable with being ambitious and determined because those feelings felt positive and I let them become my identity. I decided I was going to become someone great (which really meant worthy) so he would meet me one day and be sorry for what he missed out on. However, for my entire life, beneath the surface I was deeply hurt, very angry, and determined to work at being worthy. It was such a psychological mind trick and informed so many of my life’s decisions. God used the outpouring of this letter to reveal the deep pain that still lay beneath the surface.
So it is important to confront the truth of what’s really happening. It’s so easy to just keep living. We create systems of surviving and of showing up in our relationships that often do not serve us and then settle in nicely with the false way of thinking and believing. It’s not authentic and doesn’t serve your purpose. There comes a time when every person is faced with either doing the real, deep, earth work, or making the choice to never scratch the surface layer. God always provides a way out of our darkness. It’s up to us to take it and start untangling some of the knotted webs we inherited as children.
Step Two: What is the Cost?
Another step in forgiving is to recognize the amount of emotional energy that is tied up in the injury. I realized that night that my unwillingness to deal with the absence of my father for all those years was manifesting itself in all areas of my life. Honestly, I didn't want to be a cliché — the girl with daddy issues. Still, I carried that pain with me everywhere and it permeated all of my relationships. I trusted no man to love me. When God revealed it to me that night, I had to consciously decide to keep carrying it or actively lay it down.
God is a very just God. He lovingly showed me the part I played in this circumstance. For the first time, I felt my own sense of shame for my participation in the continued injury. Obviously, I didn’t blame myself for what happened as a child. But I was no longer a child. I had been an adult for several years before my dad died and I could have made my own attempts to locate him to attempt reconciliation. Blinded by my ambition and my desire to be right, I missed his life and his death. Nothing can be done about that now as it is a lost opportunity. Many are the plans of man but you never know how much time a person has left on this earth. I was arrogant and prideful and without answers and I still had to deal with the outcome.
“Now seeing the Man in those pictures
Looking beyond the father and the questions
To see your pain, your life, your dreams
Your heartache amplified with every hour
Your life was a testament to your failures
Your dreams incinerated by the system
You served even before you became a man”
Step Three: What is Their Story?
Another very helpful step in forgiving is to reframe or reassess the identity of the person. It was another first for me. I began to see him as a man in those pictures and not as just my father. I thought about his life as a young black man in Mississippi in the 50’s and early 60’s. He was 12 years old when Emmett Till was murdered at 14 years old. I considered his life as a black soldier in Vietnam and a black man who married a white German woman in the late 1960’s. I saw the pressures he must have faced because of both his circumstances and his choices. After spending years in Germany, he returned to the United States in January 1972 with a white wife and two mixed children. What pressures he must have faced! Mississippi was still burning and interracial marriage wouldn’t be legal for another six years!
My mom, being German, knew nothing of race relations in America. How could he explain the whole white/black dynamic to her without feeling even more exposed and vulnerable? This doesn’t excuse any of his behavior; it simply brings a new level of understanding. God gave me new eyes to see the life of this man and to feel the weight of his burdens. I had compassion and empathy for him and the outpouring of truth set me free.
“I wish I could have known you
Anything to replace the memories I have
From the spoken words of my mother
Images of a broken, horrid man
So lost and devoid of spirit from the atrocities of his life
I missed your life
And as well, your death
I struggle to forgive you father
For leaving me again
With the burdens of your soul
Releasing years of bottled fears through tears of pain and sorrow
With questions of how and why
What would it have been like to know you?
To ask You when I was bewildered
To remember Your arms around me
To see in Your eyes my birthright
To have Your love as my absolute
It is true
I am only half of who I could have been
The desertion continues its assault on my life
Taking prisoners of my war with you
You permeate my darkness like the
Weight of ten thousand anchors
This is my feeble attempt to confront you
The man, the father I never knew
To release years of stifled emotion
To accept that indeed I missed you
I needed you
I wanted you
To just be there”
Step Four: Truth Sets You Free
The whole letter writing process took less than 15 minutes. But in that short time, God did a mighty work in me. He revealed and He healed. I read it often and cried every time. God taught me how to forgive a man who should have loved and protected me. He used those tears to purge my soul and remind me that the truth was always that I just wanted the love of my father.
That experience was a decade before God would call me to Him and meet that need Himself. Years later, God whispered to me that He knew exactly who my father was going to be. He gave me to him anyway because He needed me to experience him as my earthly father so I would later come to God as my Heavenly Father. Nothing about our lives is random. God has a plan for us and knows the circumstances we need to experience to bring us to the end of ourselves and closer to Him.
I am God's daughter and that means everything to me. But He is no respector of persons. If He did it for me, He'll do it for you.