A Question of forgiveness

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Have you ever gotten "that look" from a stranger when your child was having a meltdown in aisle five of the grocery? Have you even been "dodged" by a friend to get together, have a play date or just talk on the phone? Have you ever received advice from a well meaning aunt about your child's behavior that felt like a slap in the face? While trying to understand the questions of "how" and "why" regarding a child's special need, parents and families of those with disabilities need to find a sense of balance, peace and forgiveness.

by Holly Olmsted-Hickey, One Place for Special Needs


Forgive...Who?forgiveness istock photo

You might be surprised that the first person to forgive is yourself. Try and rid your mind and heart of feelings of anger, disappointment or sadness.  “You didn’t ask for this to happen in your life,” says clinical psychologist Aimee Koerner-Frank, PsyD. of Charlie’s Gift Autism Center in Downers Grove, Illinois. “Circumstances happen.  Life happens.”

Dr. Koerner-Frank speaks from experience.  While she is a clinical psychologist working in the special needs community she is also a parent of a son with Down syndrome.  Forgiving yourself will not only make a difference in your child’s life, but it will make a significant difference in your own life, too. “Quality of life is important to a special needs family,” says Dr. Koerner-Frank. “Being the parent of a special needs child has made me a better person and a better therapist.”

Forgive that stranger

“Can’t you control your child?” You’ve probably been there: in the store checkout line with a screaming child dealing with glaring looks from strangers.  When the feelings of anger can no longer be ignored, is it easier to simmer in silence or lash out at rude strangers? Or is it easier to turn the other cheek, forgive and let it go?  It probably depends on which warrior parent you are speaking to. 

Living under a cloud of anger or exploding by making a public scene does not enhance your quality of life.  Ask yourself, is yelling at other people for thoughtless transgressions really how you want to live your life? The healthier approach is to forgive ignorant comments and let it go. Vent your feelings with a trusted family member or friend. Post the incident on a special needs group site with an understanding audience.

“Life is too short to make a big deal out of it,” chimes in special needs parent Camille Gaughan of Carmel, Indiana.  “…and karma happens.”   When it comes into conversation, Gaughan explains her 11-year-old daughter’s mitochondrial disease in a very matter-of-fact way. Similar to muscular dystrophy, her daughter’s disease leaves her unable to convert nutrients into energy resulting in her inability to balance, walk or talk.  From her wheelchair she is able to communicate well with sign language and through a picture exchange system. 

Forgive your friend

”Something’s come up.” It is hard to see relationships change.  Someone who was once a close friend can drift away for many reasons.  Feeling dismissed or “dodged” by a friend brings on feelings of sadness, anger, and hurtfulness.  Trying to put yourself in your friend’s shoes might help.  For whatever reasons, your friend might feel he or she cannot support you emotionally. 

They may not understand your feelings of helplessness or hopelessness or feel overwhelmed by them. “I find it easier to forgive,” says special needs mom Susan Black of Columbus, Ohio, parent to a 10-year-old son with Down Syndrome.  “I have become a very non-judgmental person and wish others were more that way.  No one can truly understand the difficulties that a special needs child can add to your family unless they have a special needs child themselves,” she says. “I do not hold it against them and some day they may have an experience that will allow them to understand more fully and be more accepting,”

Forgive your family

Like some friends, there are a lot of close well-meaning and loving people in your life that won’t understand what you are going through.  Family members might try to soften the edges you feel by saying things like, “It’ll be okay,” or “Your brother did that, too, and he’s perfectly fine.” 

Statements like that may sound incredibly patronizing at the wrong moment, but know that your family is there for you.  Trying to normalize the situation is what people try to do when there seems to be an imbalance. Like friends, they cannot take away what is going on in your life, but they can listen to your life and times as they play out. Rather than feel resentment, use this time to gently educate and help them understand your world.

In some extended families, a relative may only offer harsh judgment and animosity. Every family gathering is filled with hostility and resentment. Katherine, a recovery counselor in Chillicothe, Ohio, helps people learn to forgive others “whether or not the offenders deserved to be forgiven.”

“Resentment hurts the resenter far more than it hurts the offender,” she said. “Grudges are cancers in our souls. Forgiveness isn’t a gift we give to others, but a gift we give ourselves.” Katherine and others offer their own stories on forgiving family members in this Dear Abby column.

Does forgiving yourself or others mean you are giving in to the disability?  Parents and professionals both agree: absolutely not. To the contrary, forgiveness allows you to live a happier life without resentment and anger. 

“Forgiveness is not forgetting like it never happened, but rather letting go of the malice and anger that is poisoning the individual,” says the V. Rev. Dr. Steven C. Salaris, M. Div., Ph.D. of All Saints of North American Orthodox Christian Church outside of St. Louis, Missouri. “Forgiveness is not giving in but accepting the reality and actually taking control.”

What is the answer to the question of forgiveness?  It lies in the gift you give yourself for a better quality of life for you, your children and your family and friends.

More reading

Coping with stress - Articles on handling the daily stress of being special needs family
Taking care of yourself - Articles on taking care of you

Holly Olmsted-HickeyAbout the writer

Holly Olmsted-Hickey is the married mom of two boys, an autistic spectrum teenager and a typically developing six-year-old, each with their own gifts and challenges.  She is the Development Manager for One Place for Special Needs and, in her spare time, the leader of The Windy City Chicagoland Apraxia Network and blogger/writer at waitingroomtherapy.wordpress.com.  She drinks a lot of coffee, plays softball to relieve stress and enjoys an occasional nap. Reprint permission granted if you include: Reprinted with permission from One Place for Special Needs http://www.oneplaceforspecialneeds.com