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Getting Over It

How I learned to let go of my family's painful past.

It was a typical family holiday scene: My daughter snuggled close beside my sister, sharing the exciting news of her wedding proposal. My niece leaned in to get the scoop and to see the ring. In the kitchen, my mom hummed an off-key version of a Christmas carol while she loaded dishes into the dishwasher. My dad lounged in his faded blue recliner, while my husband and brothers talked about the football game on TV. The younger children played cards at their feet.

Wait a minute! When did we become a "typical family"?

Chaos at Home

My past will never resemble a Norman Rockwell painting. My mother was an emotionally fragile woman who lost a baby at age 15 and was physically and verbally abused by her first husband. She fled that marriage at 20 and started over.

On her own with her second child and pregnant with her third—me—Mom met a good man and remarried. They had three more children, but her emotional baggage took its toll on our family and was compounded by the mood swings caused by Mom's medication for acute asthma.

She often threatened suicide. One day she actually put a gun to her head in front of us. I was 13 at the time, weary of wondering if she was going to carry out her threats. I remember whispering under my breath, "Just do it."

Being realistic doesn't mean I don rose-colored glasses. But it does mean I stop viewing my family exclusively through the bleak fog of harsh events.

Five siblings lived in our small house. We each reacted to the dysfunction in our own way. I played the part of protector, taking my younger brothers with me wherever I went. I watched out for them, often running into a room and stepping in the way of a belt when I thought things were out of control.

My younger sister learned never to ruffle feathers. My elder sister was the complete opposite. She fought back verbally and physically and left home at 16. My little brothers were too young to know how to respond. The youngest, a toddler, would hide in the closet. My other little brother climbed into bed with my sister and me at night, afraid of nightmares that wouldn't go away.

Time Keeps on Ticking

Those events occurred 36 years ago. Today I'm 51. The youngest "child" is 42. Our family no longer resembles the characters in our once-chaotic household. We grew. We changed. And God entered the picture.

When I was 15, I went to church with a friend. I didn't believe in a supreme being; I went because my friend wouldn't quit asking. I challenged God that day, asking if he was real. I didn't expect an answer, but God gently reached past the tough shell around my heart and let me know he not only existed, but that I mattered to him.

This new relationship changed my life. I found comfort and hope in Scripture. My world expanded as I hung out at friends' homes, seeing healthy families in action. Church became my sanctuary.

During my senior year, my mother began her journey of faith. Over the next ten years, the fractured mother of my teenage years picked up the pieces of her life and eventually became the beautiful woman of faith she is today.

Clouded Vision

My family has been "normal" longer than dysfunctional, so why was I suddenly surprised to see them in that light? I had to admit I'd placed my family in a time capsule, viewing them through the jagged pieces of my childhood, as if I were part woman, part child.

It was time to completely move out of the past, to let go of my painful family memories and accept my family for what we'd become. But how?

• Refocus. I took the spotlight off my childhood and onto the present. I'm no longer that 15-year-old hurting child but a grown, confident woman blessed with a loving 30-year marriage. I'm the mother to three adult children with whom I'm close. I know God, and his love amazes me. I've come a long way from that broken young girl. Viewing my family as a healthy, confident adult frees me to focus on their needs rather than mine. And this has taken my relationship with my mom and her healing to a whole new level. We've started fresh with a woman-to-woman friendship.

• Be realistic. Bad family memories tend to erase positive moments, so I've delved into the past to remember the good. I asked my mom to share good memories from the past. We laughed together as she reminded me of my five-layer birthday cake. Cooking didn't come easy for Mom, but she worked all day to make it from scratch. I carried it proudly to the kitchen, and on the way I stumbled. The cake exploded into a thousand chocolate pieces when it hit the kitchen floor. Mom ran to the cabinet and got out two big bowls. We scooped up the top pieces, lit candles in the gooey mess, and ate as we sat on the floor, laughing over my crumbled birthday cake.

Being realistic doesn't mean I don rose-colored glasses. But it does mean I stop viewing my family exclusively through the bleak fog of harsh events. By weighing both good and bad, I'm able to add fond memories to my family album.

• Relent. When we were young adults—and the wounds were tender—my siblings and I held tête-à-têtes to dissect my mother's idle comments and perceived actions. Sometimes with Mom present, we jokingly told others childhood stories, complete with feigned laughter and just enough detail to heap guilt on her. The observers didn't catch on—but Mom did.

This cycle of rehashing bad family stories became an excuse to stay "victims," to keep relationships at a distance and not forgive. But I realized I could either offer my children a legacy of bitterness and anger or extend grace and mercy in my family relationships. I chose grace and mercy.

• Receive. My mom always gives me a bag filled with goodies to take back home after I've visited. It might contain magazines or even a great vintage coat from a thrift shop, but I know these gifts have little to do with what they are. Every time my mother presses something good in my hands, it's her way of telling me she loves me.

Often with a dysfunctional past, a family member's overture of healing may be awkward. She may not use the words you think she should or act in the way for which you hope. But true grace is receiving those gestures with the same spirit in which they're offered.

Letting go of my painful past doesn't mean I've forgotten those memories, but it does mean I've transitioned from child to adult. I've broken the cycle of carrying emotional baggage from one generation to the next. I can reflect on what God can do despite a broken past. When I look at my family now, I don't just see normal, I clearly see a portrait of God's grace.

T. Suzanne Eller is a conference speaker and the author of The Mom I Want to Be—Rising Above Your Past to Give Your Kids a Great Future .


My family experienced healing, but what do you do if your extended family is still stuck in the same harmful patterns?

1. EXTEND GRACE—but create healthy boundaries.
2. RESOLVE that you cannot change their behavior. You're responsible only for your response to their behavior.
3. CREATE NEW TRADITIONS and healthy behaviors in your primary family.
4. SURROUND YOURSELF with friends and families who are strong emotionally and spiritually.
5. PRAY for your family. Prayer is powerful and effective.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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