What Does Forgiveness Mean to a Survivor

By Rebecca Lynn

For those of you who don’t know, August 4 is International Forgiveness Day. My kids and I have a calendar called “Everyday is a Holiday” and we try to celebrate whatever odd holiday the calendar says, from Compliment the Mirror Day to Waffle Day. Some of the days are too odd or difficult (like Hair-Dryer Day?), so we skip them. It is a fun way to do things as a family, so I let them know that Forgiveness Day was coming up. Out of curiosity, I asked what forgiveness meant to them. I  wasn’t surprised to hear things like “saying it’s okay that someone took something from you, and them saying sorry,” “telling your brother you will forget he said something mean,” and my five-year-old said, ” hugging and being friends again.” These were all perfectly acceptable answers; in a nutshell, that is how I would have defined forgiveness. I would apologize by telling someone that whatever they did was excusable, and I will forget it happened so that the relationship is not impacted. In my eyes, the other person says, “I’m sorry,” and then just like my five-year-old said–we hug and are friends again. 

It isn’t uncommon for a survivor to hear that in order to move on with their life they have to forgive their abuser. But how do you tell someone who hurt you that it’s acceptable and you won’t think about it anymore? If they did apologize, how could you believe them? Like most abusers, they have most likely apologized over and over again, without any change. Doesn’t forgiving someone make things right again?  What if I don’t want to go back to someone I worked so hard to stay away from, someone who did things to me that were unforgivable? International Forgiveness Day was just one of those days that I would have to skip. 

The more I thought about the possibilities or reasons for a survivor to excuse their abuser and forget the trauma they experienced, the more curious I got. I decided to look up the definition of “forgiveness” and according to Greater Good at Berkeley, it is “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they deserve your forgiveness.” I had believed that forgiveness required two people, one person to apologize, and one person to forgive, with the result being that everyone was happy again. The idea that forgiveness could be done by one person, without the other even knowing, so that survivors can get peace of mind, was a little mind-boggling. 

As I kept researching, my view on forgiveness continued to change. I learned that forgiveness is not about excusing the horrible things you have experienced.  It is not about dismissing the abuse, or it’s seriousness, legally or emotionally. Forgiveness does not mean you have to reconcile with your abuser. In fact, it isn’t recommended to see or even tell your abuser that you forgive them.  The most important part to remember is that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. You have to remember the person you left and why so that when you get the kind of love you deserve, it will be one that doesn’t involve struggles of contemplating forgiveness. 

The more I researched forgiveness, I found many articles that focused on not only the positive mental impacts of forgiveness, but the physical ones as well. According to Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on it, holding on to resentment and anger can lower your immune system, increase the risk of PTSD, blood pressure, and other stress-related illnesses. 

Forgiveness was sounding better and better, but I still couldn’t grasp how to reach the point of forgiving someone who hurt me so badly.  I was still working on forgiving myself for believing all of the apologies that, in the end, meant nothing. 

Forgiveness is a journey, one that starts with forgiving yourself.  You must know that you aren’t to blame, you did not deserve the bad things that happened to you, and the abuse does not define you or your self-worth. It isn’t easy to let things go; it takes work and strength.  There are no timeframes to complete the journey, no rules on how you do it, or requirements to do it alone or with help from a friend or counselor. Forgiveness is about you. It’s about letting go of the negative emotions that still control you. Forgiveness is not a necessity for healing and it can’t be forced or done out of pressure. It has to be a personal choice that you make when you are ready. Forgiving yourself, learning what healthy love is, and putting yourself first takes a lot of patience and strength. 

So, maybe you (and I) are considering giving forgiveness some more thought, what is the best way to go about it? Everyone is different, and since there are no rules, anything goes. According to The National Domestic Violence Hotline, there are a few ways that have helped survivors in the past. One idea is to sit in a room with an empty chair. Imagine your abuser there, but they can’t talk back, can’t make excuses and only have the ability to listen to you. Don’t hold back, say how you feel, speak of specific incidents, get angry, or cry–spend as much as you need.  When you think that you have nothing left to say to your invisible abuser, you can choose to forgive them or not. Saying these words out loud can make all the difference, and give you the empowerment, you need to move forward. 

If talking to an empty chair is not your thing, write a letter to your abuser.  This letter is not intended to be sent or given to them but gives you a chance to write everything you want without interruptions or false apologies.  Writing is therapeutic; it turns your ideas and feelings into something concrete you can see. It gives you the ability to take your thoughts and fears and turn them into a story, your personal story. It may contain things no one else knows or ideas that you never thought until you started writing.Iit is your raw truth. If you feel as if you have come to the point that forgiveness is the next step, then write it. You may choose to re-read it, then nicely put it in an envelope with your abuser’s name or crumble it up, the decision is yours. Then, you burn it…yes, you carefully set it on fire. As you watch it shrivel up into ashes, hopefully, some of your resentment, loss of control and anger will go away as well. 

There may be more paths to take on your journey to forgiveness, more doubts to work through, and time required to make sense of what forgiveness means to you. However, it’s possible you are at a place where your new understanding of the benefits of forgiving motivated you to let go and focus on positive things in life.  If this is the case, may I recommend toasting marshmallows while watching your anger and resentment turn into ashes? There is no better day to do this than on August 4, celebrating International Forgiveness Day. 

If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, there is help. You can visit the Break the Silence website at www.breakthesilencedv.org or chat with one of our helpline advocates at 855-287-1777.

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