On Christmas, I was talking with a friend who had retired from 14 years of working as a Jail Chaplain. He told me that during his first year at the jail, as Christmas approached, the inmates asked him for cards they could send to their mothers. He couldn’t get enough cards for moms. But, none of the men and women wanted cards for their fathers. Not a single person wanted to write to their father. He told me:

“Everyone wanted to let their mother know that they loved and missed them. No one felt that way about their dads. Eventually, I discovered that none of them had good relationships with their fathers. Not one of them had forgiven their fathers for stuff that went down in the past.”

You don’t have to be in prison to find it hard to forgive your father. Many of us didn’t have fathers who supported us as the people we were. We had dads who wanted us to be different. My Dad tried to get me into playing sports (not a success) and then bought me a set of weights to beef up my skinny little body (also not a success). He wanted me to be different than who I was: a nerdy, skinny kid who loved to read and draw and dreamed about other boys.

When I was around 13, my Dad caught me messing around with my best friend during a sleepover. I was mortified. So was Dad. Luckily (?), we were both too freaked out to talk about it.

Fast forward about 20 years: when I (finally) came out, my dad was more supportive than my mom. He was curious – not judgmental – asking me, “You don’t feel anything when you are with a pretty girl?” And I felt safe enough to tell him, “Not really”.

Since I was a little kid, my dad and I have shared some rough times. Most of us have been disappointed or hurt by our dads. While many people have “good enough” dads, some of us have fathers who caused us a lot of pain and suffering. One client told me, “I feel bad when my friends tell me about their great dads and how they took them to Christmas brunch at a nice restaurant”.

Some people have absent dads or abusive dads or alcoholic dads. Regardless of who they were/are, how can we forgive them?

Start by telling yourself the truth about your dad, who he is (or was) and how you feel about him. Lying to yourself will only make you feel worse. If friends ask you what your relationship is with your dad, consider telling them: “My Dad and I aren’t close” and leave it at that. You don’t owe anyone an explanation of your dad or how you feel about him.

If you’re angry at your dad, admit it. The way to be free of anger is to work through it. You can’t run away from it: it will follow you. If you look “under” your anger you’re likely to find sadness. Sadness comes from disappointment, being hurt or let down. Perhaps your dad gave you plenty of reasons to feel sad. Allowing yourself to feel that sadness helps it pass more quickly. Denying it or pushing it down, e.g., telling your friends, “I’m fine, really, don’t worry about me” is likely to make you feel worse. Tell the truth: “My father isn’t someone I have a good relationship with” is usually enough for most people. However, obtuse types may tell you, “Oh, just get over it, forgive him and move on”.

If this were something we could easily do, then all of us would be mentally healthy all the time. It doesn’t work like that. We can’t really forgive until we work through our old wounds and emotions.

If you can work through your relationship with your dad, that’s great. If he’s abusive or unavailable, then work through it on your own, with a trusted friend or therapist.

Forgiving our fathers is for us. No matter who they are or what they did in the past, don’t let 2023 be just another year where you continue to hold onto old hurts and pain with your father. Find a way to forgive him and be free in 2023.