EVERY FAMILY HAS ITS UPS AND DOWNS. Many love each other through the tough times and come out stronger in the end because of their struggles. But what about families who have stayed in persistent anger toward each other? The most important part of healing in the family is coming to a place of reconciliation and forgiveness. Without this, small slights become mountains that push families further and further apart.
Before we can discuss reconciliation, we should ask ourselves, what exactly is forgiveness, and what does our Christian faith tell us about it? For starters, a Mayo Clinic blog post explains: “Generally…[forgiveness] involves a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge. The act that hurt or offended you might always be
with you, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help free you from the control of the person who harmed you. Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or excusing the harm done to you or making up with the person who caused the harm. Forgiveness brings a kind of peace that helps you go on with life.”
The article goes on to explain that forgiveness leads to improved mental health, better overall relationships, and stronger heart and immune health. If forgiveness isn’t present, health and social risks increase, including depression, failure in other relationships, and a negative outlook on life. In a 2014 Deseret News article, Troy Dunn, a TV personality and author, notes that some families fall apart due to neglect. Sometimes, you do things for “perfect strangers that slowly we begin to not do for the people closest to us. You tolerate annoying strangers but snap at family and say things you would not say to a stranger in the mall.” He explained that while we’re quick to forgive hurtful things said by friends, if the “hurt comes from a relative, grudges may linger.” “I believe time heals almost no wounds,” said Dunn. “What heals a wound is good treatment. That doesn’t come from sitting there, waiting… People 15 years later can recite with incredible accuracy the words that wounded them. The only way is to replace them with new words.” Spiritually speaking, the Gospels remind us over and over that forgiveness is an important component of a Christian life. In fact, it is a key point in the “Our Father,” the prayer that our Lord Himself gave us. We ask God to “forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We cannot ask from God what we won’t give to others. So forgiveness is both a spiritual necessity and a vital factor in our physical, mental, and emotional well-being, too.
Family in Good Times and Bad
Many big, close-knit families can likely relate to the Academy Award-winning hit, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. In the movie, the character Toula Portokalos (Nia Vardalos) has been smothered by her family for years. She works in their Greek restaurant, is encouraged to date only nice Greek boys, and make Greek friends. As a result, she is shy and awkward, even into her 30s. When she meets the love of her life, she keeps their relationship secret from her family for weeks because he isn’t Greek.
The movie is a comedy, taking viewers through the high and lows that come with navigating your family of origin while creating a new one. There are a lot of tears, confusion, and anger along the way. At several points, you wonder if Toula will cut off her family forever to find some peace. But she doesn’t. In the end, out of love for her family, she and her new, kind husband embrace all the crazy traditions, clothes, and ceremonies that are part of being in a Big Fat Greek Wedding. And as Toula herself muses: “My family is big and loud, but they’re my family. We fight and we laugh and yes, we roast lamb on a spit in the front yard. And wherever I go, whatever I do, they will always be there.”
Like Toula, when our family members’ quirks get on our nerves, the best choice might be to practice acceptance, grounded in love and forgiveness. Ideally, both sides could humbly acknowledge their own imperfections and strive for some peaceful middle ground.
Some situations, however, can be more challenging to deal with because they produce long-lasting emotional pain. For instance, consider the hurt caused by a workaholic father, an overly critical mother, or a sibling who can’t be trusted. And negative experiences in our family of origin can impact the way we approach the future with a new family created through marriage.
“My parents’ decades-long marriage crumbled six months before my husband and I began our own,” wrote an anonymous woman on the website I Believe in Love. “After months of lies, distance, brave faces, and finally cheating, they split on lessthan- peaceful terms and began to live their lives without each other.”
Even though the writer’s husband had done nothing wrong, she began projecting her parents’ problems onto her own marriage, growing suspicious and doubtful that it would work out in the long run. But about six months after their wedding day, she had a revelation.
“I made the choice, the deliberate choice to trust [my husband],” she wrote. “I see the core difference in my marriage and that decayed mess of my parents’: the choice to choose marriage every single time. To choose love, to choose commitment - to choose each other. When it came down to it, Mom and Dad didn’t do that. But I know that won’t be us because my husband shows me every day that he’s just as devoted to our marriage being a lifelong commitment as I am.”
Healing in the Face of Abuse
Father Ciril Č uš is a priest in Slovenia. When he was growing up on a humble farm, his father suffered a traumatic brain injury. As reported on the website Aleteia, the injury changed the man and he became abusive, especially toward Ciril, who felt helpless for years afterwards. Through “curiosity” and the grace of God, Ciril embarked on a pilgrimage, where his interactions with others began leading to healing. “For the first time in my life, I realized what my biggest problem was—that I was not able to forgive my father. I was so angry,” Ciril recalled.
Ciril pledged that he would keep praying until he could forgive. “Most of the time it was really difficult, I was not able to see any change. Everything seemed so pointless,” he said. But Ciril stayed persistent.
Eventually, his father ended up in the hospital with liver failure and was given one month to live. So “I went to meet my father when he was coming home from the woods. I had always been afraid, but at that moment I felt at peace,” he said. “I took his hand, looked him in the eyes, told him I forgave him, that I was sorry for everything, and that I loved him. I held his head close to my heart. It was the first time in my life that I hugged my father.”
Ciril’s father went on to live another 16 years: “[My father’s] eyes opened and he wanted to fix everything. For the first time in our lives, [we] children saw mother in father’s embrace—we cried tears of joy. He told us, his children, that he loved us.”
Unfortunately, not all stories have a happy ending, especially when abuse of some sort is involved. Even though medical experts agree that forgiveness is the healthier choice, what does that mean for a child who was perhaps beaten or verbally or sexually assaulted? Must they live as nothing has ever happened just to avoid tension? Absolutely not. This is a situation where it can take years of prayer, therapy, and self-reflection to begin to forgive, even if an actual reconciliation isn’t possible. But healing for victims is possible if they reach out and seek the right help.
Moving Beyond the Past
Margaret Berberich dreaded moving in with her aging father after her mother died. The two had never gotten along because he was “harsh and judgmental,” she wrote in Guideposts. Growing up, he didn’t even call Margaret by her name. Instead, he referred to her as “Number Two,” because she was the second of four girls. But Margaret and her husband were dealing with financial burdens, so this was the best option. “Lord, how can I take care of this man I don’t really care for?” she prayed. “Teach me how to love the unlovable.”
Margaret discovered that her father had reached a level of helplessness due to “age-related dementia,” so she drove him to doctor’s appointments and tended to his needs. One day, while her father was sitting on the porch and Margaret was doing some weeding in the garden, she noted that she would go make some lunch. Her father responded, “Whatever you think is best, Babe.” This term of endearment startled Margaret. Was her father actually mellowing towards her? Some time later,
Margaret offered her father his favorite ice cream bar. He responded, “Margaret…Thank you. You take such good care of me.”
Margaret was floored. She wrote, “I felt the knot inside me come loose…Dad and I had both been brought low by circumstances beyond our control, and in this new place, there wasn’t room for anger or resentment. There was peace, tenderness, even
love. That was really why God had brought me here, I realized…For a chance to settle the past and to finally have a relationship with my father.” Healing broken families is challenging, yet possible. In certain cases, where reconciliation is not a desirable outcome because a family member continues to be abusive, letting go of resentment in
your heart is still a worthy goal. So take stock of your family and your own life. What needs healing? Who needs forgiveness?
“For you who revere My name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
- Malachi 4:2