Say what needs saying, before it’s too late.

thYesterday DF’s father died. I am so, so glad that it happened after DF’s recent trip down south to take care of business. Now his father’s widow, who’s 95, won’t have to stress out over death-related details or to face her late husband’s very disorganized papers.

No, DF did that for her – with complete transparency – because she was too busy coping with the impending loss. I’m glad he did that. I’m gladder still that he was able to say some things that needed saying, while his father was still able to hear and to respond.

Please, please do the same – before you miss your chance. If something needs saying, then say it.

Their relationship was not ideal, but DF made a conscious choice to put aside rancor and say, “I love you unconditionally.” As in, no conditions attached to his statement:

  • No recriminations.
  • No asking “why?”
  • No demand for closure.

That last is counter to pop-psychology tenets, but not everyone needs or wants it. A therapist I know once said, “Closure is overrated.” I think I know what she meant: Those openness-and-healing talks aren’t necessarily a panacea.

That’s because they’re only pieces of the puzzle. Closure comes from figuring out where all that information fits with what you thought you knew about the situation. That might mean facing some uncomfortable places in your perception of self.

A great weight lifted

For example, suppose your parents crippled you emotionally because they couldn’t express their feelings. You may have needed therapy to deal with the resulting issues.

But once you know more about where momma and daddy were coming from, you have to decide what to do with the new knowledge. Specifically: You have to decide whether or not to accept your parents as flawed humans who did the best they could, or decide to continue to be affected by what you perceive as their mistakes.

Understand: I’m not saying you need to brush off abuse or neglect. Sometimes it’s smart to remain separate from the person or persons who harmed you. That’s a context of self-preservation: “Person X is a cruel and sadistic person who damaged me and I choose not to allow this to happen again.”

But suppose the context is more along the lines of, “My daddy was beaten regularly by his parents so his discipline of me was overly harsh” or “My momma was neglected and therefore had trouble nurturing”? You have two choices:

  • Stay angry and forever mourn the lack of a happy childhood, or
  • Forgive your parents for what they couldn’t have known and try to make the rest of your life happier.

Incidentally, those are just random examples, not personal ones. And yes, I know it’s hard to forgive. (Boy, do I — more on that in a minute.)

I still can’t let go

You don’t have to forgive at all. But read this Leonard Pitts column about Elwin Wilson, a former Klan member who, in old age, finally began to repent of his hatefulness. He sought out one of the Freedom Riders he’d beaten up, to ask forgiveness. His young victim is now U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who gave his pardon. Apparently both men cried during the meeting.

Wilson died last week, a great weight lifted from his soul. I can only admire Rep. Lewis, a class act who was able to put aside bitterness and rage and freely forgive a man who’d hurt him and so many others.

He’s a much better person than me: I hold a couple of lingering, very private  grudges. I’m not yet a good enough Christian to deal with these, i.e., I find it tough to forgive.

Today I mused on that: What is keeping those grudges in place? Maybe it’s that I feel that these people have not sufficiently repented the harm I feel they did. But as they say, hating someone is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.  th-1

If either of those people asked me tomorrow to forgive them, would I be able to put aside my still-smoldering anger and let it all go?

I’d like to think so. I’m also self-aware enough to know that saying it is not the same as meaning it.

How easy to toss off a glib “okay, that’s all in the past, we’re square” just so I can check that off my emotional bucket list. Forgiving with a truly open heart is a little trickier. It requires letting go of the comfort of victimhood, i.e., feeling that I don’t have to make them feel better because I still hurt. It would also require me to examine how much of that pain is from self-inflicted poison.

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  1. Contact

    Donna,sometime you are overbearing middle aged loser.

    • Donna Freedman

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, although I’m not clear exactly what I’m supposed to do with them.

    • How much you reveal yourself by this remark, Contact.

  2. I’m so sorry. I truly am.
    Sometimes you have to forgive from a distance.
    And I always try to tell people how grateful I am for them. I thanked my father for not letting me go without as a child like he had. I told him how grateful I was that he worked so hard to provide for me. I saw how he struggled and that he didn’t make me. I recognized his suffering and how he overcame and broke the cycle. He had tears in his eyes as he hugged me. He clapped me so hard on the back and smiled. I just wanted him to know how impressive he was to me. And that is what I thought about when I looked down on him in his casket.

    • Donna Freedman

      What a gift you gave to him by saying those things. Well done, friend.

  3. My condolences to DF. Even when it’s expected, it’s still hard to lose a parent. Age does not really soften the blow.

    You’re a good person. I hope you know that. Because you are.

    • Donna Freedman

      Thank you, Kymm. I just want to be better than I am now.

  4. Our condolences also, to DF.

    Great post! And the questions are not easy to answer.

  5. So sorry for your loss. Trying to do what DF did now with our parents.

  6. kerry borst

    I discovered your blog recently; thoroughly enjoy your thoughts and the way you use words. The older generation didn’t discuss ‘feelings’ the way we feel free to do now, so we would initiate these conversations with them (we were caregivers for our parents), and it brought happiness to all concerned. We continue this pattern with our children and grandchildren, saying what we want them to hear while we can say it and they can hear it. And, I think we all want to be ‘better’ than we are now… Keep up the good work.

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks, Kerry. Hope you’ll stick around and read some of the older stuff.

  7. Harry Martin

    Wow, a class act, your DF. 🙂

    Had many mixed feelings on your thoughts. I would say for the most part, you’re spot-on with the forgiving and understanding another’s shoes.

    But after 3 years of therapy for PTSD (partially generated by my Dad’s actions when dying) and just having my psychologist confirm my Dad was a classic narcissist who had no empathy for me, I take exception that I am choosing to linger in this.

    50 years of abuse is not blinked away. Yes, I do laugh and smile, but my Dad left me not only his height, but also PTSD and the final realization that it wasn’t me.

    Yes, I hope he finds peace in Heaven, because he deserves it, but I can wholeheartedly say, I’m glad the cruel Dad I knew is dead.

    • Donna Freedman

      @Harry: As I noted, abuse/neglect should not be brushed off. Having been diagnosed with PTSD myself, I know it’s hard to shake — you’re not choosing to linger there, it’s where you were put. Even now, 14 years after diagnosis and treatment, I still display some aspects. It’s not comfortable, and for some it’s debilitating.
      At least you now know you were not the bad son. You were put into an impossible situation and you coped the best you could. What matters is that you are getting help and you can work at not giving him any more rent-free room in your head. Easier said than done, but you are taking steps to make the rest of your life your own. I wish you peace.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

    • IMHO some things can’t be forgiven. Child abuse is one of them. And there’s not one thing wrong with a son or daughter who can’t find whatever it takes to shrug off a parent’s cruelty and egotism.

      One of my friends has been terribly damaged psychologically by a mother who in my opinion has always been a mental case. She — friend — feels guilty that SHE’s not a better daughter! When you have a parent who works at harming you, there’s something to be said in favor of healthy anger and understanding that such a parent is not a good person.

  8. Robert

    Thanks for your insightful thoughts and transparency. We all have things we need to resolve. My deeper understanding of my parents and subsequent forgiveness came in my late 30’s. It has borne much rich fruit not the least of which it my acknowledgement that I carried much more of what I was raised with into my own parenting. I am actively seeking to mend my relationship with my sons.
    In the wake of that forgiveness I have also reached out to my siblings in an effort to rebuild relationships that were strained during childhood.
    In the other direction, I have a relative who has become more and more toxic as she has aged and sadly I had to sever all contact with her 3 or 4 years ago.
    These things are all part of “Surviving and Thriving”. Thanks for reminding me.

    • Donna Freedman

      Thank you, Robert, for those insights. It’s kind of a mix of what I talked about: rapprochement when possible, a chance for healing/change with future interactions and, sadly, the need to back away from certain relationships.
      I appreciate your comment.

  9. I agree 100% with everything you said. I have, however, two stumbling blocks.

    1. What if the person who has harmed you doesn’t ask for or even acknowledge the need for forgiveness? Do you pretend that they did for your own sanity?

    2. The second is the statement that “they did the best they could”. Really, there are parents who clearly didn’t do the best they could. In fact never even gave it a thought. That’s the part I stumble over.

    • Donna Freedman

      My grudgees haven’t asked for my forgiveness. It’s up to me to decide whether I want to grant it, even silently, for my own sake.
      And yes, plenty of parents didn’t give a rip — but plenty who did err, sometimes egregiously, honestly didn’t know any better/don’t have it in them to understand what they did wrong. In both cases you have to decide whether to absent yourself (as I noted, it is perfectly legit to say “I won’t keep putting myself in harm’s way”) or to simply remain on the fringes of that person’s life, realizing s/he may never change. It’s up to each of us to decide whether it’s worth it to have some contact or whether it’s smarter simply to cut our losses.
      Specifically: If I keep giving these people that rent-free space in my head, I’m the one who suffers. I can choose to give all that up, i.e., to stop obsessing over it. Hasn’t happened yet. I’m not proud of that.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  10. Catseye

    My condolences to your DF, Donna. I’m glad he has you to help him get through this.

  11. Virginia

    My deepest condolences to you both. I just lost my father in February and I’m still trying to make sense of…..well, everything.

    • Donna Freedman

      My mom’s been gone for almost 10 years. I still miss her, a lot.

  12. Lorrain

    My condolences to you and your DF. I agree with you that it is important to say things to your loved ones while you still can, since you never know what tomorrow may bring. I have also found it to be true that, no matter whether the person deserves forgiveness or not, for our own emotional health, we need to forgive. That doesn’t mean that we have to remain in relationship with the person, just that we have to let go of the poisonous feelings that unforgiveness and bitterness leave in our lives.

  13. jestjack

    Hi Donna, So sorry to hear of your “Dearest Friend’s” loss. How good he must feel that he made the effort to go “make things right” and even better that he set his Dad’s matters in order. To face his Father’s eventual end had to be tough. Will tell this is no small task as I myself battle my folks get their matters in order….to no avail. It would truly be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Once again my condolensces….

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks, Jack. I wish you luck with getting your parents’ paperwork together. Here’s a sneaky trick: Tell each one, privately, that it would make the surviving spouse’s life so much easier to have their joint affairs in order.

      • jestjack

        Hmmmm….. “Divide and conquer….” I like it….I’ll give it a try.

  14. My condolences to DF. I’m glad he has you around during this tough time.

    And, as frequently happens, you’ve given me something to chew on. Life is one big work in progress.

  15. teinegurl

    This is a very good post. Sometimes forgivness or trying to be forgiving is a hard pill to swallow if you have a lot of pride and/or not ready for it. I throughly enjoyed this post but it is deep needing some contemplation on it!

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks. As you can tell from what I wrote, I need to keep contemplating this issue myself.

  16. One great way to deal with the clutter is to contact a reputable estate sale company. They sort, organize, find and prep everything and are paid a flat percentage of the value and leave the house empty and broom clean for the Realtor. The family can tour before the sale starts and pull

    • Donna Freedman

      Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of value — and furthermore, his dad’s life partner hadn’t yet moved out. She has since put the place up for sale.

  17. It sounds like DF’s father life to a ripe old age. It’s still hard to lose a parent, even if the relationship was less than perfect…after all, whose relationship with a parent is perfect?

  18. Donna, I’m a huge fan of both your writing, and the I Pick Up Pennies blog, but I must respectfully disagree with some of your thoughts on the matter. Yes, there are times when forgiving someone and letting go of feelings from the past can be cathartic, but I really wish people would stop pressuring those who have cut off contact with a parent to explore that, and only that road. You mention abuse and neglect, and I applaud you for that, but there is a wide swath that isn’t covered by that. A parental bond, even an unhealthy one, is one of the hardest to break. Generally, if someone has gone through the agonizing process of creating that much distance between themselves and the parent- there’s a reason. If someone continues to stay distant as the parent ages, that’s a good indicator that they need that space, and peace. Yes, abuse- including the oft overlooked emotional, plays a factor, but there are other reasons. If a parent has substance issues, and refuses to address them, it can be like watching someone you love choose a slow, agonizing form of suicide. Even if that parent wasn’t abusive, watching that can be hell, and the adult offspring may need to resolve themselves to the fact that watching it is too painful. So you distance yourself, and make peace with the idea that your parent’s choice will kill them. You mourn, you cry, and you stay separated. If a person will not choose to help themselves, and will go against any help that you can manage- it is safer, and much healthier, to simply let that person go in whatever way you need to, and brace yourself for the expense of having a lawyer, patient advocate, or other professional take over what you might do if you were there. When that parent passes on, if you are the only living relative, or are the one specifically named in the will, you can have a friend, or a professional, go through and give you the least amount of involvement. The death can be hard… Since we all carry that tiny hope that our loved ones will live up to the covenant laid out by family bonds, but it is a cleaner break than watching someone you love drive themselves into madness and pain because they choose to.

    • Donna Freedman

      Again: I think keeping one’s distance can be a survival mechanism. If that’s the case, then do it.
      But other cases can be resolved, or at least let go of, by talk. Do what works for your particular situation.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.


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