Julie McDonald Commentary: Healing Old Wounds Healthy for Fruitful Future

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As Father’s Day approached, I reflected on how much I miss my dad.

My father was a Korean War veteran who never talked about the war. He was a jovial man with a tremendous sense of humor. He loved telling jokes, affecting accents to add authenticity to the short tales. He never met a stranger, often inviting acquaintances to stay for dinner. My mother said he could charm the birds out of the trees. When they visited Ireland in 1986, my father physically couldn’t climb the stairs to Blarney Castle, but he always quipped, “I kissed the girl who kissed the Blarney Stone.”

Like all earthly fathers, he wasn’t perfect.

He was an alcoholic, which was the family secret while I was growing up.

Dad didn’t want to be an alcoholic any more than Mom wanted to suffer a nervous breakdown. Life happens.

Most families are dysfunctional to some degree. The late John Bradshaw, an author, educator and family therapy advocate, cited research showing 96 percent of all families have some degree of dysfunction. In November 2019, a Forbes article stated that between 70 percent and 80 percent of Americans consider their families dysfunctional.

Nobody is perfect. People become parents with little training and do the best they can.

Children can’t control their parents. They can only determine how they deal with the fallout from family dysfunction.

When I was in my 20s, exploring my fears and anxiety, I drove to Olympia to attend meetings of the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA). A sister and I spent a weekend at an ACOA seminar, where we shed tears along with everyone else in the room while watching the 1979 film, “Soft Is the Heart of a Child.” We learned about roles children assume in dysfunctional families — the family hero, the scapegoat, the joker or mascot, the lost child.

Children love their parents, even parents who hurt them, which leaves little hearts conflicted and insecure.

What changed my outlook was an exercise in the 1987 book by Claudia Black called “It Will Never Happen to Me.” She suggested taking pen and paper to write a letter to the alcoholic, sharing all the pain and shame, the fears and terror, the doubts and insecurities. Pour out the heart. Write all those things you could never tell the person face-to-face.

Then, at the end of the saga, write these words: “For all these things I forgive you.” Then sign and date it.

But that’s not the end. Take all those pages of heartfelt words, keeping only the last note, and burn them.

This exercise proved life-changing for me. I no longer held grudges against my father. In fact, today I can’t remember what I wrote. I let go of all those grievances, petty and huge, releasing the pain. My relationship with my father improved. I didn’t change my father; I changed how I related to him.

When my dad quit drinking, I thought everything would improve. I had blamed alcohol for all our problems, but the reality was, he still was the same imperfect person. I was still the same imperfect person.

But after I wrote that letter, the anger, the pain, the heartache disappeared.

Just as my parents weren’t perfect, neither am I nor my husband. We did the best we could. Only our Father in heaven is perfect. As Romans 3:23 says, “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.”

We have no control over what other people do. All we can control is our response, our actions, our beliefs. As 18th century English poet Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”

It was after my ACOA explorations during my 20s that I wrote a letter to my father telling him how much I loved him, a letter he kept in his nightstand for a decade, a letter my mother pulled out the night he died in July 1998.

I had told my father in the hospital after his surgery for an aortic aneurysm that I loved him. He responded, “Well, I’ve gotten kind of fond of you, too.”

But more than that, years earlier, I had written a letter of healing, telling him how much he meant to me, how much I loved him.

I feel only peace about our relationship.

I miss him, on Father’s Day and many other times throughout each year. And I will always love him.

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.

 

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