Forgiving a Parent Who Left: 4 Lessons for the New Year

I became a woman the year I turned 19. There were no tribal tattoos or ritual ceremonies to mark my right of passage into womanhood. Only a perpetual state of uncertainty, feelings of vulnerability, and distorted memories of my father. Now nearly eight years later, with New Year’s Day around the corner, I’m learning how to forgive — on my terms.

“Y’all are literally like the Cosby’s,” my best friend once told me. In a lot of ways we were. We were a dine at the table-, summer vacation-, game night-type of family. Days before my 19th birthday my father told my sister and me that he was leaving. Shortly after, he said, “I’m starving. I’m going out for a slice of pizza,” and poof…he was gone.

My entire world was torn apart. My mother descended into depression and I took a leave of absence from college to work and help support my family. We only had $10 after my father wiped out the family bank accounts. We went from being the dine at the table, summer vacation, and game night family to a splintered memory of a time dead and gone. It was without a doubt, the scariest time in my life.

Now, I know my story isn’t unique, I realize this is waaay too Debbie Downer for the holiday season, and no I’m not crowd funding, but I’ve gained a lot of perspective through this experience. Hopefully, some of these lessons will resonate with you when facing a tough time.

Here, four lessons learned from abandonment to carry into the New Year:

1. Don’t always be the bigger person.

There’s value in allowing yourself time to process a situation, rather than reacting in accordance with other people’s expectations. Tons of people (from friends to family members) told me to forgive my father, because he was…my father. However, prematurely acting based on the desires of others does not nurture your personal growth or development. While I do agree with Buddha’s saying, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned,” it’s important to give yourself time to hone in on what forgiveness looks like for you. For me, forgiving my father wasn’t picking up the phone and calling him. For me, it was creating an inner peace and understanding that I cannot be defined by a single action.

2. “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life; it goes on.” –Robert Frost.

Apparently, I’m really into Frost these days, but it’s true —life happens. No matter how life changing an event may be, in some respect, it always passes. Time provided distance from my experience and helped me forgive my father, in my own way.

3. Perfect does not have to last forever.

Perfection and longevity do not have a symbiotic relationship. While I wish things hadn’t gone for my family the way they did, I can’t deny that for a time my family was perfect to me. Allow yourself to be nostalgic about a time in your life when things felt perfect, but don’t make the mistake of comparing that moment in time and the feelings you experienced to new memories you create. You’ll end up setting the bar way too high for anything new that comes your way. Greet each unique experience with an open mind and without expectation. You’ll experience many versions of perfect as you evolve.

4. You’re much stronger than you think.

Looking back on my father’s abandonment is like finding life among the wreckage — though incredibly painful, there are glimmers of an unparalleled sense of self awareness. As we welcome a new year, remember that through hardship we discover our true grit and learn that we’re much stronger than we even imagined.

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