Recently I published a book entitled Fatherless Daughters: Turning the Pain of Loss into the Power of Forgiveness. This book began as a pilgrimage for me, a journey to find out how the loss of my father when I was only ten years old had affected my life. I also hoped to share this information with other women who had lost their dads.
[Note: I also have three brothers, and believe firmly that the loss of our dad affected them as deeply as it affected me. However, because they were boys-and now men-the effects were different. I'll discuss those in upcoming blogs.]
The Pain of Father Loss
With regard to women and fatherloss, after interviewing over 100 women, I uncovered a vast amount of information. Here's a brief summation of what I learned:
1. The depth of a woman's attachment to her father is profound. Whether the relationship was good or bad, long or short, happy or sad--it will never end.
2. Fear of abandonment is the hallmark of the fatherless daughter. Directly linked to fear of abandonment are virtually all other emotional problems shared by many fatherless daughters, problems with intimacy, sex, commitment; and most of all, anger.
3. Death of a father, because of its finality, is commonly thought to offer closure to a fatherless daughter. This is not necessarily true.
4. Abandonment by a father following divorce, if the father is still alive, is commonly thought to offer hope to a fatherless daughter. This is not necessarily true.
5. If your mother coped with strength, intelligence, and empathy toward you after your father's death or abandonment, the chances are good that you were spared many of the problems faced by many fatherless daughters.
6. Stepfathers can be a God-send or a tragedy.
7. Alcoholism is a very frequent problem among the mothers, fathers, and stepfathers of fatherless daughters.
8. If you have put together a committed and happy relationship with a husband or partner, you are well on your way toward resolving your father loss issues.
9. Your life would not necessarily have been better if your father had been present in the family; different, certainly, but not necessarily better.
10. You are not responsible for hurts you endured as a child, but you are responsible for your life today. You must rely on yourself.
11. It's never too late to "find" your dad-and to come to terms with his loss.
12. Coming to terms with the loss of your dad--and forgiving all those you let you down-- is liberating, freeing you to experience life, love, peace, and happiness.
The Power of Forgiveness
The key to coming to terms with father loss is forgiveness. At its most fundamental level, forgiveness means pardoning or excusing an offence, debt, or a fault. At a deeper level, forgiveness means that we must renounce any bad feelings associated with an offence. We must try to see the absolute truth of a troubling situation, and then make a conscious, committed decision to give up all condemnation, resentment, and anger surrounding it.
Easier said than done! Forgiveness is a complex, difficult, long-term, painful process. I love Sue Monk Kidd's comment about forgiveness in her novel The Secret Life of Bees: "People, in general, would rather die than forgive. It's that hard. If God said in plain language, ‘I'm giving you a choice, forgive or die,' a lot of people would go ahead and order their coffin."
Still, it is imperative that we forgive. Only when we have truly forgiven will we be free to move on with our lives. This is particularly true when forgiving the people most involved with our experience of father loss.
Much has been written about the process of forgiveness. Here are my thoughts on steps toward forgiveness as it relates to forgiving our fathers or anyone else involved in the pain we experienced as a result of father loss.
1. Clarify the facts of the transgression(s) related to father loss, and our own pain as a result of them. This may appear obvious, but, I have observed that many fatherless daughters are reluctant or unable to acknowledge the pain of father loss and/or to direct the blame in the appropriate direction. Indeed, I discovered that denial shows up frequently among fatherless daughters.
2. Be willing to forgive. One of the most fundamental steps toward forgiveness is simply deciding that you are going to forgive. This means letting go of both blame and self-pity. It means facing difficult feelings with courage, and making tough decisions about important people and events in your life.
3. Work with a sympathetic listener or advisor. I believe it is imperative that we articulate our feelings. This work can be done by writing in a journal or speaking into a tape recorder. However, in addition to simply articulating the feelings related to father loss, I believe it is important that the feelings be expressed to a responsive and sympathetic listener, such as your spouse, a good friend, a religious advisor, or, most especially, a psychotherapist.
4. Clearly articulate who the transgressor is. With regard to father loss, we probably have more than one person we wish to-or need to--forgive, including our father, our mother, and anyone else directly associated with the effects of the loss of our father. We need to define clearly the transgressions that are causing the pain, and who, exactly is responsible. With regard to father loss. transgressions (and transgressors) will vary-and may be numerous. Each situation needs to be worked out separately.
5. Focus on the facts. Highlight clearly the offences that were done to you-not how you felt about them, but simply the offences themselves. As odd as it may sound, try not to take the offences personally.
6. Try to understand and empathize with the transgressor. Focus on the humanity of the transgressor. Do you know of problems they faced growing up? What was their life like at the time of the offence? As soon as you begin thinking along these lines, you will feel a certain "softening" toward the person you are forgiving.
7. Understand that you need not condone transgressions. Although you have decided to forgive and may well be feeling "softer" or "warmer" toward the transgressor(s), understand that you need not-and indeed should not-condone serious transgressions, such as heartless abandonment, sexual or emotional abuse, or alcoholism. Remember that you are trying to forgive a transgression; you are not acknowledging that it was right.
8. Understand that we need not continue a relationship with the one we are forgiving. To forgive another does not necessarily mean that we like him, want to associate with him, or indeed should associate with him. For example, if an abandoning father was also an abusive, hurtful man, he can be forgiven, but you are not obligated to associate with him or be responsible toward him in any way. We can wish health, happiness, peace, joy, and all the blessings in life for them, but we need not offer anything more. Indeed, you need not even tell him. Your forgiveness is for your own spiritual well-being, not for anyone else's.
9. Realize that we are not responsible for the transgressions. Usually, in life, when we are involved in the act of forgiveness, we must hold ourselves responsible in some way. If we are asking for forgiveness, we are obviously taking at responsibility for a transgression and are hoping the one we hurt can forgive us. If we are trying to forgive a transgression, we often need to take into account our own offensive behavior that may have contributed to the problem.
However, with regard to father loss, we are not responsible for what happened. We certainly are not responsible for our father's death. Nor are we responsible if he left the family or if we were abused in any way. We were children, and children are not accountable.
10. Accept that we are responsible for our own life today. Although we are not responsible for what happened to us as children, we are responsible for finding our own peace of mind today. View this process of forgiveness as an opportunity for emotional, psychological and spiritual growth.
11. Understand that forgiveness cannot be forced. With serious transgressions, forgiveness may take time. However, even if our initial gesture of forgiveness is half-hearted, we will still feel a sense of release and lightness immediately. Lifelong pain, like that associated with father loss, cannot be relinquished in a moment; you must keep working on it.
12. Start fresh. Forgiveness, with reference to father loss, involves taking out all those bad feelings, examining them, coming to terms with them, and then letting them go. When that work is finished, you can then forgive, and start fresh.