Many people struggle with healing from an abusive childhood, and when the abuser was a parent, the healing process can be particularly complicated. Everyone has a unique story and the impact on individuals is affected by many different factors. The severity, frequency, and tactics of the abuse, and emotional strain on the victim all impact the degree to which people are able to cope with and recover from past trauma. One area of struggle can revolve around the concept of forgiving your abuser.
Forgiveness is often one our culture’s go-to prescriptions when it comes to dealing with painful incidents that continue to impact our current lives. These prescriptions may come in the form of religious instructions, moral obligations, and the promise of healing. While forgiveness may be an important and helpful step in the recovery process, it is important to understand who it is being done for and why. Otherwise forgiveness itself becomes confusing, complicated, or even meaningless.
At one time in my career I was working as a hospice social worker. Most of my patients were very elderly, and the majority of them had supportive and loving families who had the comfort and peace of the patient as their priority. However, occasionally I worked with families where there was significant emotional strain in the relationship between the dying parent and the adult son or daughter, sometimes due to past abuse by the parent. Needless to say the issues each family was dealing with were unique and there were long and fraught histories involved. I had some family members who spoke to me about their own process of forgiveness and how it helped them to heal and find their own peace, and I had other families who had no interest in a dramatic reconciliation at the deathbed. They were tired of being judged for keeping their distance from a formerly abusive parent, and their own healing was better served by strong boundaries and detachment. Our society loves a Hollywood ending, and popular culture is littered with depictions of those reconciliations.
When I am working with clients to process and heal from childhood abuse, we discuss forgiveness and what it means for their individual recovery process. Some of the things we have to figure out through that process include knowing who the forgiveness is for (the victim, the abuser, or someone else), how it will or will not facilitate their healing process, and why it is being given. The answers to those questions help people come to an honest conclusion about whether they want to forgive their abuser, whether it will help at all, and the intentions behind that forgiveness. I don’t ever tell people that they need to or have to forgive their abuser in order to heal and recover from an abusive childhood. If people feel forced to take the moral high ground by offering forgiveness to someone who may or may not even be in their life anymore, they may continue to struggle to recover because it feels insincere and obligatory. However, if that forgiveness is offered for the right reasons and at the right time, it can be an important step towards releasing the control trauma can have over their life and emotional wellness. The “right reasons and right time” are not for me to decide. Those decisions need to be made by the individual who is healing from that trauma.
As friends, families, communities, and caregivers, we can place value on forgiveness without making it into an obligation for people who have been abused. Coping with the emotional labor of processing the abuse inflicted by a parent who is supposed to love and care for you is difficult enough without having social pressure to rush the process and bring it to a convenient and neat conclusion. Allowing abuse survivors to direct their own recovery and determine why, when, how, and if forgiveness is a part of their healing journey is a more supportive and intentional way to promote recovery.