How I Learned to Forgive My Father

forgive my father

Forgiveness is our most important contribution to the healing of the world.

– Marianne Williamson

There was a time not long ago when I had little to no relationship with my father. We talked on the phone occasionally, but we hadn’t really connected or listened to each other in years. We didn’t visit often, didn’t spend holidays together, and neither one of us made much of an effort to change this.

The Distance Between Us

I watched my father struggle with alcohol, and it had taken a serious toll on our relationship. A few months before my son was born, my father visited for Thanksgiving. I was counting his drinks, and on his last day in town, I sat down with him and had a long talk about his addiction and how I wanted him to get help and turn his life around.

My father got upset and didn’t speak to me for months. He didn’t even call me when the baby was born, until several months later, with the excuse that he didn’t want to bother me when I must be busy with a new baby.

A Path to Forgiveness with Ho’oponopono

The years went by. I didn’t want much involvement with my dad as I rarely saw him sober, and I didn’t want him around my children, so I kept my distance. Then I began to undergo some profound life changes. I started learning about loving kindness, and a friend recommended Ho’oponopono. I call it the forgiveness mantra since I can’t seem to say the name right.

Whenever we see anything in a negative way, Ho’oponopono asks us to heal it through forgiveness, through bringing our love to the situation, in four steps:

  1. Express love for the person or situation.
  2. Seek forgiveness.
  3. Offer an apology.
  4. Express gratitude for the healing opportunity.

This tool helped transform different parts of my life, but it didn’t occur to me to use it specifically with my relationship with my father, until one day…

Learning to Forgive My Father

I was speaking to my dad on the phone. On a whim, I invited him to come from the United States to visit us during a summer in Spain and he accepted. The trip was transformative because, for the first time, I was really able to forgive my father for some of the pain he caused. I used the forgiveness mantra. Whenever I thought of him and his alcoholism I repeated the mantra. I looked at him and said to myself that I loved him, I asked for forgiveness for my inner negativity, said I was sorry, and set aside a moment for gratitude.

The beauty of the forgiveness mantra is that it works because we forgive ourselves, no one outside of us has to change. A big part of the problem was my own: my resistance to his alcoholic self. I was negative because I felt I had lost a father and my children had lost a grandfather. But choosing to forgive my father helped me let go of that feeling of loss. I realized that the alcoholic was just one part of him, it wasn’t all of him.

We tend to think that we are on some sort of an upward trajectory in life, constantly improving ourselves; but in truth, there are mountains and valleys. Challenges come into our lives at different times. Being unable to overcome one challenge doesn’t negate all of the triumphs that came before it.

If I looked at it without the constraints of time, I could see in my father’s personality many parts of him that I loved. He had been a really good dad. He was a Dad who took me camping every summer in Northern New Mexico as a child, to whom I had turned for wise advice so many times during college, and who had always offered a safe space for me to be myself, without judgment. That father had existed even though he was struggling with loneliness in his older years and took refuge in alcohol.

In the beginning, I used the mantra, but later the process took on a life of its own. My behavior changed. I stopped counting my father’s drinks, and I found that I was bothered less when I wasn’t keeping track. I had to let go of my worry about my children being exposed to him while he was drinking. My son asked, “Mom, why is Grandpa always drinking so much beer?” I told him the truth, “He drinks too much. But we still love him.” Forgiveness is what allowed me to find love again for my father.

The question arises, is there anything, any act or experience that so grave that it shouldn’t be forgiven? I don’t know the answer to this question, and I suspect it will be different for everyone. In my case, when the negativity of judgment about someone arises in my awareness, I can forgive and be more at peace within myself. It seems paradoxical, but this doesn’t let the other person off the hook entirely, they still must live with their acts and are accountable for them.

Embracing a Renewed Relationship

After my father’s first visit, things really improved between us. I began calling him every week or so, and he seemed really happy to talk to me. He came back for another visit 6 months later, at Christmas. And then he came the following summer on a family trip with us to Nice. I developed more compassion for him. I could see the hurt he carried around with him, feeling unloved by his mother, now deceased for 25 years.

I tried to make his life easy during his stays with us. I fixed him his morning ginger tea and his coffee. I bought him the newspaper in English. My husband thought my behavior was crazy. For him, it was not OK for me to just do nothing about my dad’s addiction. But strangely enough, he drank much less whenever he was visiting us.

What are the steps we can take when we want to forgive in theory but just can’t seem to get there?

  • We can start by forgiving ourselves for our reluctance to forgive. Sometimes the pain just runs so deeply that we can’t uproot it, even when we want to.
  • We can remember that all forgiveness is of ourselves and the hurt we experience.
  • We can use a practical tool, such as Ho’oponopono, that only requires the simple act of repeating a phrase or holding an idea in mind, even if we don’t believe it at first.

In the case of my father, the forgiveness didn’t completely heal his alcoholism, it is an issue he continues to struggle with, but it helped to heal our relationship. When we reconnected I could see that engaging with my family was having a positive effect on him. Though he still drinks, he does so much less, and I hope in time he will ask for help. On his last visit, he took my son ice skating and taught him to play chess. He helped me with the kids and did the dishes and cleaned the kitchen at night. Being with my family made him reflect on his own childhood.

One night, we were sitting at the kitchen table talking after the kids were in bed. He began to talk about his mother, a woman he felt didn’t have time for him, more focused on her career than on her four children. I told him about forgiving, and how when we don’t forgive, we are the ones who suffer, not the other way around. He pondered this a bit, and we sat for a moment in silence.

21 thoughts on “How I Learned to Forgive My Father”

  1. Emily, this is beautiful (and, I’m going to try it). I’m happy for you that you found peace with your father. Beautiful. I am an editor at The Good Men Project and I think this article would resonate with our readers. Would you be interested in reprinting it? Please email me if so, Thank you, Jenny

  2. This is very good mantra and have to admit I’ve been struggling with this for a very long time. After reading this, I finally can let go and forgive myself for beating a situation that I cannot control. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Lovely, lovely piece Emily. The only power we have in this life is over ourselves. It may seem easier to blame others for relationship rifts, but most of us never learn that we can reduce our suffering only by starting with our own internal work. I love your advice to forgive yourself first. You do a beautiful job of explaining the many levels of healing, each achieved through simple acts of compassion and kindness. Thank you! I’ll be sharing this piece with my circles.

    1. Thank you Martha,

      I agree that we can only work on ourselves and how we see things. At first, it was really hard for me to let go of the hurt that I felt about my Dad, but when I realized how much better I felt by letting go of so much negativity I felt really grateful. Thank you for commenting.

  4. Thank you Emily for sharing this very personal story. Isn’t it amazing how if we turn our thinking upside down, it can change everything? So happy your relationship with your father has deepened!

  5. My story is so similar, I thought we might be sisters, lol-but seriously..great post, thank you for sharing the importance of forgiveness

    1. Hi Eve,

      Yes, it is truly amazing, as you say, how things are often the opposite of what we have been taught our entire lives. I feel so grateful I stumbled upon this realization. Best wishes.

    2. I think a lot of us have similar experiences. I realized that in so many areas of life, even the most very difficult, we are not alone, because our experiences are shared, sometimes right down to the smallest details.

  6. Hi Emily,

    I loved this article/blog so much because it was just raw, simple, honest and strong. I think forgiveness is truly one of the most beautiful and powerful tools we can have in emotional arsenal and your story with your Father touched me. Your writing is also spectacular, I definitively got chills at least twice.

    Much love and peace,

    1. Hi Sanna,

      Thanks for your comment. I was a little nervous to share my story about my Dad, so seeing the positive response is really wonderful for me. Thank you so much for sharing your comments.

  7. Thanks fro sharing your story as I too am in that situation with not only mother both parents. I have fought hard to find it in my heart to forgive but sometimes I wonder if I have. I haven’t spoken to any of them in years even though I convinced myself I have forgiven them. I try to convince myself that it is possible to forgive yet keep your distance. I am a work in progress but with your story I am encouraged to do more.

    1. Hi Rose,
      Thanks for commenting. I think we are all works in progress. After becoming so much closer to my Dad I began seeing other people in my life whom I also needed to forgive. Some of them still bring up negativity in me and so I find that the process of forgiveness is ongoing. It is also important to be gentle on ourselves as we do it. We have endured a lot and it’s not easy, so compassion for ourselves is a must.

  8. The things you said in this post were so deep!
    It takes a big, emotionally sound person to forgive someone.
    Now your experience is a guiding light for others to follow.
    Great stuff!

  9. I am going to try this with my father, since he also suffers from being an alcoholic. I actually cried reading this because it hit so close to the heart. People don’t really understand how hard it can be to live with an alcoholic and how patient you really have to be. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I am glad this resonated with you. Actually, it just reminds me how even when we feel so alone in our experiences, they are ones we are sharing with others, we just aren’t aware of it. It helps to know we really aren’t in anything alone. I hope you find peace with your situation. I find that forgiveness is difficult but I keep coming back to it!

  10. Dear Emily,

    Thank you for writing this article. I found it at the right time. Thank you. I love you. May you be safe 🌸 Warm regards from Belgium. Karin

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