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Forgiveness Is a Process

Forgiving may be the most difficult task in our lives. To forgive, we have to let go of our resentments, our need to be right or to be vindicated or to see justice done. Forgiveness moves us from justice to mercy. But once we have been wronged, our hurt urges us to seek revenge, or at least vindication. It is the human response. Only when we approach forgiveness as a calling, as a holy process that heals our souls, do we find an approach that really heals us.

Writing about forgiveness reminds me of South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid, when Bishop Desmond Tutu launched a process that helped heal an entire nation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission’s first step was to listen to the stories of those who had been hurt, even tortured, and to the stories of those who had done the torturing. In any process of healing and forgiveness, this step is essential so we don’t inadvertently skip over the pain in an effort to forgive.

Forgiving too soon or too easily doesn’t work. It just reinforces passiveness. And for some people, passiveness may have some connection to being hurt in the first place.

Telling Our Stories, but Not Getting Stuck in Them

Grief psychologists suggest that we need to tell our grief story many times before we are ready to move on. Grief and hurt are similar, and it is equally important to tell the story of what has hurt us and then to affirm with certainty that we did not deserve it. These are central truths in the healing process.

Sometimes our hurt is from a specific event or a careless word, a slight or a deliberate act of unkindness. Other times our hurt is deeper, as are the debilitating hurts from childhood, divorce, sexual assault, abuse or criminal acts perpetrated against us. Coming to see the truth of what has hurt us can take years, since enormous fear and denial are involved, and we tend to surround our hurts with silence. This process of uncovering our pain most often begins at a time of change in our lives or at midlife, when some seemingly unconnected event surprises us and we start to unravel our secrecy.

I remember watching my own family silence unravel and seeing for the first time the dark side of my family. My first inkling that something was amiss came when I separated from a business partner because of his addictive behaviors, only to see in therapythat his behavior was familiar to me. I traced my history back to other addicted bosses and ultimately back to my father. In my family, I learned to live with addicted men, to apologize for them, to cover for them, to keep the silence and to suffer alone.

A lunch conversation with my cousin left a lasting impression on me and changed the way I viewed my family. He told me that my father was an alcoholic and that he had a religious conversion the year I was born. This explained why there was no liquor in our home throughout my childhood, and it explained his anger and unpredictability—the behavior of the unhealed addict. It was a truth that had been missing from my family story, and without that truth I had no way to heal. The truth will set us free, but finding the truth can be painful.

As important as telling our story is, it is equally important to know when we have told our story enough and are ready to move forward. It is easy to get stuck in the storytelling stage because of the relief we feel when someone will listen. We can become so identified with our stories that we cannot move beyond them and become victims or martyrs, getting our energy from the sympathy our story elicits. We can even get comfortable in that victim place. Our culture seems to feed victimization, even sensationalize it. And being a victim saves us from having to take responsibility for our lives.

Taking Responsibility for Our Part of the Story

Personal responsibility is vital to the forgiveness process, yet it is a delicate endeavor, and it is particularly difficult to write about because asking a person to take responsibility can easily be confused with blaming the victim. Yet we will never gain back our power if we do not see how we could have acted differently on our own behalf.

Claiming our power is central to the healing and the forgiveness process. Let me give an example to illustrate the fine line between blaming oneself and taking responsibility. As a child living with a dry drunk, I could not confront him or ask my mother for help. I did not know enough, nor was I assertive enough to do either, and the culture in those days offered very few resources I could have drawn on. So I don’t blame the little girl I was for not stopping the behavior.

But now that I am grown and have been involved, on one level or another, with numerous addicted men and with a variety of abusive behavior, I do not need to repeat that pattern and then blame the people who continue to hurt me, any more than I need to blame myself for being vulnerable to them. They are repeating their own family patterns, which connect with my family pattern. They are in my life because I attract them subconsciously to play out my father’s part. The gift that having them in my life gives me is that I can now see the pattern and do the inner work of healing from the abuse (which is a lifelong venture), and then recognize and set appropriate boundaries in the future. My responsibility is to see that I am not only vulnerable to these people, but that I am drawn to them because they are so familiar.

The concepts that resonate most strongly with me in this healing process are remorse and compassion. First I need to feel remorse and then let that remorse create sincere compassion. For example, at the meeting with my addicted business partner when he invited me to work with him, he showed all the behavior I know now to be addicted behavior; he was charismatic, manipulative, controlling, suave and a little too smooth.

Today, I can imagine that meeting and stop myself at the point where I am charmed and ready to move into the partnership. So now I can let myself feel deep remorse for the decision I actually made as a younger woman. “Don’t do it,” I can say to my younger self. “Don’t do it. You’ll be so sorry.” But of course my younger self did go forward. So I sit with the remorse of that decision and feel it deeply. It is my responsibility that I said yes. No one made me do it. My intention was to get security and recognition. As it turned out, I paid a high price for those intentions.

Then I move to compassion for the young woman I was. She didn’t know enough. She was vulnerable financially. She wanted to have what he offered her. She had not healed from her family system. She is still a part of me. What I have to do is forgive myself as well as the other person, and forgiving myself first helps me make better decisions about the other person. Then, if I want to complete the healing process, I can reconstruct the scene, either in my imagination or with another person, and say what I wish I had had the courage to say the first time. In this case, I applaud his idea, thank him for his interest in me and sincerely refuse the offer.

Moving Forward through the Challenges of Forgiveness

One truth about forgiveness, which I’ve learned the hard way, is that, no matter what you do, there is no guarantee that the person you forgive will change. This means that the most important part of the process is what you do with yourself. It is the only part of the process you have any control over, and what you do for yourself makes more of an impact on your psyche and your soul than on anyone else’s. So if you are writing a letter or meeting with someone who has hurt you and you are assuming that telling your story will earn you an apology, you are likely to be disappointed. But if you do it to heal your soul and take new responsibility for your life, it will make a lasting impression on you.

I have been in the habit for the last several years of writing letters to people with whom I have unfinished business, people I need to forgive, people I want to forgive me. It is a spiritual process for me, involving prayer and soul searching. I try to write what I call clean letters, not blaming or expecting a response, not jabbing at the person, however subtly.

My letters are made up of four parts: The first part is a statement of my purpose in writing; the second part is a positive and true statement about our relationship; the third is a summary of my part in the problem or what I brought that was part of the misunderstanding; and the last part is an expression of my gratitude to the person receiving my letter and a reminder that I don’t expect a response. These letters take me quite a while to write and I usually have a friend read them to spot subtle jabs that I did not see. (see sample at the end of this essay)

I send most of these letters, but some I don’t. In those cases, it is just enough to write them. It is the process of writing alone that frees me and helps me to forgive. I’ve found that acknowledging my own part in our difficulty, even if I don’t name it directly, is a public statement of forgiveness for myself.

When I can acknowledge the good in our relationship and my own part in the difficulty, the other person’s heart is often touched and opened, and when people do respond we stand a good chance of healing, and the other person often talks about his or her part in the problem.

In the case of my business partner, I had moved through the process of forgiveness, even acknowledging my gratitude for the issues between us that had started me on a journey toward healing my family issues. Several years later, we happened to meet at a wedding. We chatted for a few minutes and he said, with a smile, “There’s been a lot of water over the dam since then.” I smiled and agreed, and in my heart I knew we had forgiven one another. We were not friends, but we didn’t need to be. I felt the issue was closed.

Forgiving Too Soon

Some people wait eons to consider forgiveness and others forgive too soon, perhaps wanting to be back in relationship, or to overcome shame or guilt. They risk their own safety or self-esteem by reaching out too soon. We can be more interested in reconciliation than in our own safety and so give up our very essence to our relationships. This seems especially true when we deal with family members.

Parents are vulnerable to the estrangement of children, and the road back from estrangement can be as difficult as the original estrangement. To heal these disconnections with our children, we have to relinquish our identity as parents only to see it resurrected in a different way as part of our new, healed identity. It takes time, support, compassion and wisdom. And it is a journey worth taking.

Relinquishing is necessary if we are to get to a healthier place. I call it offering up the relationship on the altar of God’s unconditional love. It is a deeply spiritual process in which we trust God more than we trust ourselves and we let go of what we think will make us happy or what we think will make us look good. We look carefully at our underlying intentions—and we either laugh or groan. We just ask to heal, no matter what we have to give up in the process. It is excruciating but freeing, since we have to face up to our own inner, unhealed places in the process. But it brings the healing we are seeking, and that healing sets us free.

The End Results of the Forgiveness Process

Forgiveness will not always result in full reconciliation. Sometimes when we forgive, true compassion means not being involved in each other’s lives, either for the time being or ever. It can be the healthiest thing to do, the most loving to do. At other times, we can see one another and be civil, even friendly, but not be as close as we were before. This is the level of involvement former marriage partners usually reach.

In some cases, we can be family or friends again but agree not to talk about issues that we know are painful and unlikely to mend. The best-case outcome is that we both work on our issues internally and no longer project our pain onto the other person. In that deep healing stance, we may be able to transform the old relationship into something new and mature. This takes work on the part of both people and is a long-term process. It is a miracle and a graced experience, a distinct inner change that both people feel. But forgiveness short of this is also a graced experience, and one to be cherished.

Any level of forgiveness is deeply satisfying and eases physical symptoms as well as mental, emotional and spiritual distress. Forgiveness is a gift that, once received, is contagious. Forgiving even once makes us want more. But forgiveness lasts longer if it includes self-forgiveness, just as compassion for ourselves allows us to feel compassion for others.

Forgiveness is a spiritual process, and praying, seeking the assistance of a friend or a spiritual mentor and listening to our own hearts will all help us know when and how to forgive.

Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2005. All rights reserved.

Reflecting on this essay:

1. Do you have any ruptured relationships that you are drawn to heal? Who? Why now?

2. What step in the process seems the most difficult for you? Why?

3. Have you been able to tell your story, forgive yourself and feel compassion? Explain.

4. Have you ever written an amends letter? If you have, what happened for you? For the relationship?

5. What is your wish for yourself in this healing process?

6. Where is God in your healing process?


Sample amends letter:


I am writing to you because I think enough time has passed and enough healing has occurred since our difficult supervision experience so that we both have a broader perspective. I’m imagining that the situation was as difficult and stressful for you as it was for me.

 I am most sorry that we could not find a way to work out our issues within the supervision relationship. For my part, I know that I was quite vulnerable at the time so I did not bring my best self to the situation and for that I am sorry. I realize we may both have experienced more stress as a result. Please forgive me for that.

Within the larger context of my life, this experience and the subsequent events were an incredible learning experience and a key ingredient in my journey towards interior deepening. That is not to say that I would want to repeat the experience but that I am grateful that it precipitated a turning point on my sacred journey. And because I believe that nothing is coincidence I have come to see this experience as a God moment, or as my spiritual director would say, “it reeked of God.”

 All this to say that I am sorry for whatever pain this whole experience caused you and I pray that you felt the presence of God in the midst of the situation and God’s grace subsequently in your life.

 I am not expecting a response to this letter. It just seemed time to share these sentiments with you.

 All my regards,


I received a strong positive response to the essay, Anatomy of Estrangement and Reconciliation. Thanks for speaking up and saying it made you feel “sane.” So for the next month or so I’m going to send essays that describe some healing processes, and to keep it from being too heavy, I’ll send along some beauty and a piece on winter calm.

I hope that you all know how much I appreciate your willingness to be with me on this journey. The two essays, the one on estrangement and this next one on forgiveness are longer than usual because they are from my e-Book called Living Into the Light that is available for download from my web site


A Pile of Debris, poem. OK, pilot error. It’s usually pilot error when I’m involved. In the post you got Monday I forgot to alert you to the fact that you needed to click on the title of the poem, A Pile of Debris, in your email in order to access the blog site and the audio/video of me reading the poem. If you tossed the email you can go to the blog site to hear the poem.

So here’s what I wish I would have said:-), “If you are reading this on email, you can click on the title of the poem (above) and listen to me reading the poem on my blog web page.” And thanks for your patience.


My brother and I had a brief reconciliation in which we reconnected and talked about our early family life. We got to a point of being able to talk to one another but in truth we never found a way to really be brother and sister. We loved one another but did not “like” one another. But it was, in the end, better than the estrangement we had experienced for about fifteen years. When he died I wrote an essay about how I learned to redeem his life of chronic alcoholism–and therefore part of my own. It’s called A Beam of Light. I will share that on the blog in the future.

Reflections on this poem:
How does this poem resonate with you–recognizing any pile of debris from your family?
Where are the glimmers of hope for you in your healing of family issues?
How has God been present to you on this journey?

Dear Subscribers,

I am offering (with two of my friends) an afternoon of nurturing on January 30 for those of you who could use some spiritual nourishment. Here’s the announcement.  I hope to see a few of you there:-)

Taste & See

Waking Up to Shame

When I am going through a rough time in my life and I am vulnerable to my inner demons, their most opportune time to attack is either when I am going to sleep or when I first wake up in the morning. Usually the morning furies are the worst. I may have had a bad dream or I remember something I am afraid of or something difficult I need to do. I start feeling inadequate, hopeless or unlovable in that early morning corridor to the day. When I start down that path I am more vulnerable to depression or anxiety. It can easily spiral downward in a dangerous descent.

I’ve learned to recognize this toxic place now and call it by its name: shame. When I am in a tough place I know I am more vulnerable to attacks of shame. Shame is not just about having a bad day, it is about being a bad person. It is a mistaken belief that I am inadequate, misshapen, unlovable, or beyond repair. We all carry shame, although some of us are not conscious of it. We usually try to conceal it with false self-esteem, or by trying to please people, work harder, blame others, or control our lives.

We connect with our shame when we have experiences that remind us we are not living up to expectations or when we are compared to others. For example, we are not good enough parents, we are not loved or lovable, not smart enough, not slim enough. I felt enormous shame when I was running an organization that focused on healing people and marriages and I could not heal my own marriage. I felt I did not deserve to be leading this organization. When I left the marriage and later was asked to teach a course at a seminary, I was invited to first interview with the dean to discuss my divorce. More shame. Since I had felt that God was instrumental in leading me out of my marriage, this interview compounded my shame.

Where do we get this shame? Oh, its insidious tentacles come from many sources. Our culture prescribes who and how we are to be in order to be successful. So if we do not measure up; if we are not as healthy, athletic, or wealthy as the image projected to us, we can feel shame. If we are compared to anyone else, especially siblings, and we come up short, we can feel shame. If we are parents and our kids do not perform well or they are estranged we can feel we’ve failed. Or if we do not adequately provide for our families shame can cripple us. A quick way to connect with your shame is to observe when you or others might say, “You ought to be ashamed,” or to think of the parts of your life you would not want publicly known.

Unfortunately the church, where we might want to go for solace in our shame, many times either does not address shame or adds to it, in some instances, by harsh teachings on sin and inadequacy. My healing of this religious shame came when I experienced the Extended Ignatian Exercises, an inner journey through the life of Jesus developed by St. Ignatian in the 16th century. In his wise counsel with God, Ignatius started the exercises with the Principle and Foundation, upon which he based all of the rest of the teachings. Principle and Foundation is essentially that we were created to find ourselves in God. And God loves us unconditionally. God created us in God’s image, and knew us in the womb. We can release all else that we cling to because our souls are drawn to God.

Yes, like Adam and Eve, we have fallen from that grace; we sin, we disappoint. But God is always there to heal and reconcile us. When I began to experience that love I was fortified enough to approach my shame. I felt that deep love directly when I was in a dark time in my life and I would awaken consistently about three o’clock AM. God attended sweetly to me, gave me images of hope, brought angels to soothe me, and built up my courage to make difficult choices.

We begin to feel God’s love when we allow God to penetrate our center, our souls. We can start by noticing any moments when we are in contact with that someone beyond ourselves. Then we can let God take root in our daily lives. If I can imagine God loving me like a wise grandparent or an adult friend, I can develop the courage to come closer to my own wounds and ask God to heal me from my shame and self-neglect. It gives me hope for my despair and a new way through my shame.

This slow change, from shame to love, was difficult because I had gotten used to shame. But I found that naming and embracing shame, by speaking and writing about it, slowly turned it into honor; honor of my truths, honor from my creator, honor of my life path of healing. It no longer ruled me or controlled my life. A deeper truth prevailed.

I still feel shame and I still wake up vulnerable to it when I am in a tough place. What helps me most in those early morning hours, is to invite Jesus into the shame with me. When I embrace myself in bed and rest my hand and wrist on my sternum, near my heart, it feels like Jesus is embracing me. I ask myself, “Who loves me?” I start with God and move to those whose faces light up when I enter a room. I often hear God speaking soothingly as I finish that list. Then I slowly recite Psalm 121, which I have now memorized, so I don’t have to get out of bed to read it. By the time I’ve completed that ritual, I’m usually calm enough to get up and my demons are usually weary enough to go back to sleep.

The Psalm goes like this: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let my foot be moved. He who keeps me will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is my keeper. The Lord is my shade on my right hand. The sun shall not smite me by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep me from all evil; he will keep my life. The Lord will keep my going out and my coming in from this time forth and for evermore.”

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.
Psalm 121 is from the NRSV

Reflections on this essay
When are your demons most active during the day?

What issues arouse your shame?

How does this affect you?

How do you experience God’s unconditional love?

How do you counter your shame?


Anatomy of Estrangement and Reconciliation

This essay is longer than usual, but I think it will be worth reading:-)

Estrangements can occur in any relationship. Within my friendship circle, I know people who are estranged from a child, a sibling, parents, grandparents, spouses and friends. The more people I talk to, the more I realize that family estrangement is far more prevalent than I imagined. It is so shaming to be estranged from a family member that many of us don’t talk about it. Yet I believe that estrangements are the family system’s way of breaking open—sometimes in very painful ways—so that healing can begin. If we see it that way, we don’t need to dwell on the shame but can rather see the potential for healing. Working through estrangements in a healing way may be one of the most graced experiences in our lives.

Let me tell you the stories of several families with painful estrangements.

Karen and her daughter:

Karen’s eldest daughter announced that she no longer wanted to be associated with any of the family, especially during holidays. Before that announcement, she talked with Karen on the phone for two hours to tell her everything Karen had done to ruin her life. Then she and her grandchildren stayed away (and allowed Karen no contact) for six years.

Joy and her sister and mother:

Joy’s mother and sister send her hate mail periodically, including a snake skin in a bag, delivered to her door, because they say she has neglected them and has not provided for them. But her sister works full time at a job she’s held for twenty-five years. The two lived with Joy for several years because she felt responsible for providing them with a home, but the constant conflict drained her emotionally and financially and she finally asked them to leave. Her mother became preoccupied with blame, shame, hatred, anger and the need to punish her daughter. Two of Joy’s other siblings have committed suicide and Joy feels her mental health depends on not having any contact with her mother and sister.

Lou and her brother:

Lou’s alcoholic brother has not been involved in the family for more than twenty years. He was the oldest and the only son among five children. Lou’s mother favored him and when he began to stay away from the family after high school, her mother supported him and took his side against the rest of the family. He married four times and a few of his former spouses are friendly with the family. When Lou saw her brother at her mother’s funeral, she had not talked to him for ten years.

Sharon and her daughter:

Sharon thought she and her daughter had worked through the problems that came from a boyfriend of Sharon’s having inappropriately touched the daughter when she was a teenager. But now, as her daughter enters midlife, she is accusing Sharon of many other things that she says happened during that time. Sharon went to counseling with her only to be attacked by two ardent therapists, one of whom said she was there as Sharon’s advocate. Sharon believes that her daughter is being set against her.

Ned and his brother:

Ned’s brother is homeless in a large metropolitan area. They have several other siblings but the homeless brother does not see any of them often. Their mother feels a lot of guilt about the loss of this relationship and their father goes to see Ned’s homeless brother whenever he can find him. Occasionally the homeless brother shows up at family events and wants to be involved, but his behavior is disruptive and makes for hard feelings among the siblings. The homeless brother has tried to deal with his multiple issues but nothing seems to improve the situation.


Steps on the Path of Estrangement and Reconciliation

One of the first steps in the process of reconstruction, for an individual and for a relationship, is owning the estrangement. Many families try to keep these estrangements a secret, perhaps out of pain and shame, but also hoping that by not mentioning them they will somehow go away. But in acknowledging the pain and telling the story to a person we feel safe with, we allow the pain out into the fresh air of healing for the first time.

It helps to use a wise and trusted professional—a therapist or a spiritual director—in the process of healing. And if we make our spirituality a part of the process we stand a better chance of healing and making amends than if our soul is not involved. Praying, writing about the issues, doing rituals of forgiveness and making amends are all spiritual in nature. This is Holy ground and the courage it takes to do this work can be supported and encouraged by our faith. Forgiveness and healing are part of a process that changes us, even though the timing of each step is different for each person.


The Hard Times in the Middle

Choosing not to be codependent: It is especially hard for “good mothers” not to overwork the process of reconciliation with their children. Our culture has so much pain and shame around this issue that we rush to make amends and we work much harder than the other person does. And if we get either no response or a negative response, we work even harder to restore the relationship. It may be helpful to reach out to the estranged person in love during an estrangement but discernment is key here. What is a genuine compassionate act of love and what is our need to be redeemed. If we find we are consistently overreaching toward the other person, we may be dropping into codependent or addictive behavior.

Choosing self-care and safety over premature reconciliation: The pain of estrangement is so great that often we try to reconcile to ease the pain rather than to heal the cause of the estrangement. We give up ourselves and sometimes even our own emotional safety. So it is essential to take good care of ourselves during a time of estrangement. This includes body, mind and spirit. A team of supporters—friends, a doctor, a spiritual director, a pastor, and a therapist—can be helpful.

The pressure on children whose parents are estranged is enormous, especially as parents grow older and need care. Resentment of older adults is a growing issue as baby boomers’ aging parents become dependent. We face so much pressure to be responsible, to be good sons and daughters, that we get caught in an excruciating vise—sometimes at the risk of our own safety or well-being. It is not an easy road nor are there simple answers.

A lot of physical symptoms are related to resentment, unhealed relationships, revenge and remorse. One way to enter into the healing process is simply to watch and read your own physical symptoms, using a guide such as Dr. Chris Northrup, Carolyn Myss, Wayne Muller or Louise Hay, who all attach emotional and spiritual issues to bodily symptoms. For instance, jaw problems like TMJ may be associated with anger, resentment or a desire for revenge. Dry eye may be associated with anger, spite or a refusal to see with love. These symptoms can alert our psyches to a deeper meaning, a deeper need, and help us look more deeply to the healing that is available to us.

Finding your role in the estrangement; remorse and compassion: Many people who summon the courage to tell their estrangement stories get stuck at that stage. They find relief in telling the story, but the next step is still hard. Acknowledging guilt, anger and resentment is difficult, especially when family members are involved. But each of these feelings, once acknowledged, leads to new awareness and potentially to healing. For instance, the other side of guilt is resentment.

So when you feel guilt, ask, “Who or what do I resent?” That gives you another way to unwrap the situation causing the guilt. Just learning to name feelings is a long-term process for those of us who were not given permission to feel in our families. The process is like unpeeling an onion. Every layer reveals yet another.

At some point in every healing process is an opportunity to step back and look at the part you played or still play. What did you do that you are sorry for now? What choice did you make that you would now want to change? Was there someone you needed to stand up to and didn’t? Was there a point at which you decided, usually subconsciously, to keep going in a direction that would be unsafe or unwise for yourself or for others. In the essay “Forgiveness as a Process,” I’ve written in more depth about this step.

It is a healing moment when you feel compassion for the person you were at an earlier time, the person who couldn’t make a decision to change the course of a relationship. Compassion allows you to act on your own behalf and to be more of the person you want to be. It also allows you to have more compassion for the other person if you choose to.

Deciding to Make Contact with the Estranged Person

Knowing when and how to make contact: If you choose to make contact with the person you’re estranged from and you have done as much of your own inner work as you can, you have a number of ways to move forward, but premature contact may be unwise. However, mistakes that occur with premature contact may also be good teaching experiences.

These mistakes help you to be clear about what you really want to do and what is wise for you to do. My therapist asked a good question as a guideline: “Who are you making this contact for, yourself of the other person?” Let prayer undergird anything you do and provide a way to listen for the best way to make contact. Several ways to make contact are possible, depending on your comfort level and the willingness of the other person.

One is to write a letter of amends (the essay on forgiveness as a process contains an illustration of this) which you either send or simply write for its own sake. This works best when you write it as a vehicle for your own amends and not as a way to get the other person to make amends.

Another approach is to do a ritual of forgiveness that you do not tell the other person about but that will have an affect on the relationship because it releases something in you. Some people reconcile in the presence of therapists, one for each member of the conflict, representing that person but having everyone’s interests at heart. Others meet alone with the person they are estranged from, although this can be risky if either party is not healed enough to be responsible for his or her own feelings.

Still other people do something special for the person, or give something special, to show that their heart is open. A genuine act of love with no expectations in return is powerful for the giver and the receiver. But again, this works best when people do it for themselves and for its own sake, not with the expectation of a response. Sometimes it takes years before an act of grace is acknowledged, and it may even heighten the friction in the short run.

Once you make the first step, a waiting time occurs, and this is when you have to release the other person. If there is to be any contact, it will come in time and within a process. You have done what you could and that is enough. Just keep reminding yourself that you have done what you could. Reconciliation is wonderful when it happens, but it is not an all-or-nothing experience. People often find only a hint of reconciliation, or find nonverbal reconciliation. A reconciliation event may last a few minutes or an hour, and then the relationship may resume with much, but not all, of its previous dynamic.

If any kind of mutual reconciliation has occurred, both of you will know that something is different. Some relationships do ultimately heal, and they are transformed in the process. Any level of reconciliation is sheer grace. And sometimes reconciliation means that you acknowledge what happened, make some kind of amends and have no further contact with the other person. This too can be a deeply healing experience.

So reconciliation is complex, but just being on the journey of reconciliation is so vital to our emotional and spiritual health that any level of change adds to our lives.

Stories of Ongoing Reconciliation Are Rarely Ideal or Complete

Karen and her daughter: Karen had almost no contact with her daughter or grandchildren for six years but kept them in her prayers and worked on her own issues and feelings of loss. They later experienced limited reconciliation; Karen sees her daughter infrequently and works to maintain boundaries, since her daughter still flings barbs occasionally. For Karen the relationship is healthier and she is grateful for what she has learned about herself and her daughter.

In addition, Karen was given a deep and loving relationship with her stepdaughter during her estrangement with her own daughter. Her stepdaughter became a surrogate daughter and offered her the love and closeness that Karen was missing. It was like a gift from God, acknowledging the hard work she was doing, both inside herself and with her daughter.

Joy and her sister and mother: Joy has chosen to complete two degrees in psychology since the break with her mother and sister, and she is deeply aware of the mental health issues in her family. She did not react to the hate mail or the phone calls and viewed the situation from a healthy distance, even though it saddens her. She finally made peace with the fact that she would never be in contact with them again.

When Joy’s mother was dying, though, she had a chance to break through the silence and go see her, avoiding her sister, delicately, in the process. Her mother slowly opened her heart to her and they were much closer when she died. Since then Joy has also had much easing of tension with her sister and gradually they became friends. Joy is good at taking care of herself and still knows her vulnerabilities with her family. The experience has been a source of deep healing for her.

Lou and her brother: Lou’s brother is still not back in the family but he did appear at his mother’s funeral a few years ago. He seemed depressed but he was no longer drinking. He is in declining health and maintains contact with his father but not the sisters.

Sharon and her daughter: Sharon is in the middle of the turmoil and is asking what she can do to understand the situation and act in her own best interest. She loves her daughter but feels defensive when they meet. She has good support through her recovery community, so she will be able to cope, but she is still reeling from the shock that this could happen to her and her daughter.

Ned and his brother: Ned’s brother is still on drugs and homeless, and that has caused the family to turn inward a bit. Instead of just reacting to him and his situation, they are starting to understand his role in the family. They still have to set boundaries on his behavior when he is high, but they are finding ways to be with him when he’s not high.

They have also acknowledged that he is the family scapegoat—the one who carried and acted out most of the family pain. This knowledge is bringing them to a new recognition of the family dynamic and has given them more compassion for themselves and for their brother. He may never be cured but the family may heal at a deeper level.

 Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2005, from Living Into the Light, a e-Book available at


Reflecting on this essay:

1. Would you consider moving more deeply into the healing process of an estrangement in your life? Why? Why not?

2. What would healing this estrangement ask of you?

3. What would your family think or how would they act if you were to move forward to heal a family estrangement?

4. How would that affect you?

5. Have you ever had an experience of making amends or healing from an estrangement? What was it like? How did it change you?

6. How is the Holy involved in your reconciliation effort? What difference does it make for you?

Happy New Year,

For the next several weeks we will be focusing on the aftermath of Christmas and the psychological wreckage it leaves in our path. What I mean is the inevitable let down after the holidays that sends people scurrying to their doctors, therapists or local liquor store. Not all people suffer deeply from the post holiday blues, but I don’t know many who don’t have some kind of psychic hangover.

So I’ll send you a few estrangement essays, a poem about my family and one on what wakes God in the middle of the night, a healing essay or two and a joyful icon. How about that? I call this section “From Darkness to Light.” It fits with it being mid-winter too, I guess. Anyway, bear with me and maybe there will be a beam of light that will illuminate honesty and healing in your life this year.

Thanks for traveling with me on this incredible journey.


Longing for *Epiphanies

I long for epiphanies
Sudden glimpses of light
But I often live in doubt
in fear of the dark

Yet I know O loving Lord
You are my light my doubt
You are my fear my balm

You ask me to climb
higher on the mountain
and wait there for you

My heart awakens there
You consume me with
the fire of your love

I become as nothing
yet all things are mine

Glimpses of light
Endless light

*Epiphany is associated with the arrival of the Magi in the Christmas story (January 6th). It is also a sudden burst of insight, a new grasp of meaning or the flooding of light on the nature of truth.

©Janet O. Hagberg, 2005 For a book of these poems see my web site

Reflections on this poem:

Where is light seeking to break through in your life?

How is God part of both your fear and your balm?

What new insights into life did you experience this Christmas?

How is God asking you to wait for God’s presence on your journey?

How are you experiencing the depth of God’s consuming love?

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