Caretaking and Forgiveness: Sonja’s Story

Sometimes people find themselves in the position of being the only available caretaker for a dying family member who has been the perpetrator of either emotional or physical abuse. Sonja was a woman who had given her entire life to the upbringing of her children and grandchildren and she was loved for her candidness and open-heartedness. She came from a time, culture, and religious background that shunned divorce, so she stayed married to a man who was a philanderer and who physically and emotionally abused her.

Sonja was employed at the same job as an administrative assistant for many years and she was finally able to retire in her elder years. She had kept herself busy all through the years caring for her offspring and with work, so that she only had to face her husband in the evenings as he sat on the sofa watching television. Typically, she would drive home from work, cook dinner for the two of them and they would watch television or she would go into the other room and do some sewing or knitting. Although she never did seek a divorce, she was looking forward to taking the time to travel to see her children and grandchildren and to engage in some art courses and hobbies away from home and perhaps volunteering at the local hospital. She now had the free time to plan her days as she desired and she hoped to spend as much time away from her husband as possible. As often occurs in life, just as she was transitioning into a hopeful phase, the unexpected happened. Her husband was diagnosed with a terminal disease.

Sonja was the only caretaker available to him, as her children and grandchildren lived in other states and countries. As her husband, Frank, was being discharged from the hospital, frail, incontinent, and unable to clothe or feed himself, the hospital staff and physician needed to secure that she would, indeed, be his caretaker, and they gave her directions for oxygen use, changing of diapers, and so forth. The hospital staff wheeled Frank to Sonja’s car and the rest was up to Sonja.

Frank was no longer abusive at this point of his life. Although he never formally apologized for this past actions, he did express gratitude for her support. As Sonja spent her days, tired and weak herself with age, attending to Frank’s care, she was unable to lift herself up from under a heavy veil of regret and resentment. She found herself snapping at Frank and feeling like she wanted to treat him the way that he had treated her all those years, now that he was vulnerable. This frightened Sonja, as she had spent her entire life as a devout Catholic, and she was ashamed at herself for having these feelings. She sought counsel with her local priest and with a mental health professional.

Now, many of us hearing this story would ask why she stayed with him in the first place. We also might ask why Sonja was so uncomfortable with her own, legitimate, feelings, when she accepted the role of caretaker to her husband and previous abuser? If we explore this story from a systemic point of view, we can explore the different systems that impact Sonja’s experience, such as culture, socioeconomic status, religion, age, able-bodied-ness and so forth. Next, we must understand the nuances and entrapments of abuse. There is much literature to support that these types of relationships are extremely difficult to change and/or to leave without substantial psychological and social support.

Under different circumstances with a different kind of support system, she would have had the guidance and courage to leave a toxic and abusive situation, yet here she was, accepting her role, but overridden with strong feelings of anger and resentment for which she did not know how to address.

So Sonja was trapped, in a sense, but not by her situation. She was trapped by the ruminations of her own mind regarding her own memories. Should she forgive her husband? Should she forgive herself for treating herself so badly by staying in a toxic environment for so many years and for having angry and resentful thoughts and feelings? I would say that the answer is a resounding YES!

Sonja was fortunate enough to have some professional support that assisted her in coming to the realization that she is the only one who can heal herself. She was guided into accepting her anger as a normal part of her experience and then letting it dissolve and become a small and managed piece in the mosaic of all of the other aspects of herself.

 First she asked herself “Who am I, really? Is “abused wife” my identity, or am I so much more than that? What is my actual suffering about here? Is my issue “him” or is my issue how I am relating to my feelings? How can I shift the way that I am relating to my feelings? What is the larger scenario here?

Sonja realized that the first thing she needed to do was to take responsibility for her own life and her own actions. She had lived most of her life believing that she had no power or control over her abuse or her situation. She realized now that she had done the best that she could, given her knowledge, level of awareness at the time, and resources. Just as she would give to one of her children if they were suffering with self-criticism, she offered love and acceptance to herself. Once she began to practice offering unconditional love to herself and saying “I love you” as she would to a child, things began to shift for her. As she was able to experience forgiveness for that part of herself that should have protected the more vulnerable part, her heart opened in a way that she had never experienced before. This was not an easy process. It took some time. Sonja would “catch” herself in her negative ruminations, witness what was happening in her thoughts and emotions, softly give these experiences a label, such as “aversion,” and notice how that particular piece passed once it was mindfully noticed and accepted as a thought or emotion and not as her identity.

Sonja actually began to feel gratitude for her current life situation. Had it not been for her current circumstances, she may not have found this window of opportunity for changing her own relationship to herself. She began to experience her husband as a fellow human being who was suffering, not as the abusive brute she once saw him as. Her memories and rumination regarding past events could have strangled her own vitality. Instead, a certain grace was present in her day to day interactions with Frank and with herself and others.

As it turned out, Frank lived longer than his prognosis predicted, although he still needed 24 hour care. As Sonja found acceptance and healing of herself, it was much easier to go through this process with Frank and to help him regain and die with the dignity that he had long forgotten in his troubled youth.

One Response to “Caretaking and Forgiveness: Sonja’s Story”

  1. Juliet Rohde-Brown on 01 Jul 2012 at 1:32 pm

    Dear Tomba,
    I is nice to see you on here. I am reflecting on our time together at the conference last July in Oxford. I hope you are doing well. Metta, Juliet

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