Living With Polio

Trouble Forgiving

Post-Polio Health, Volume 29, Number 1, Winter 2013.

Dr. Rhoda Olkin is a Distinguished Professor of Clinical Psychology at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Francisco, as well as Executive Director of the Institute on Disability and Health Psychology. She is a polio survivor and single mother of two grown children.

Question: I am a 72-year-old widowed male. I read in the September issue about the reader whose parents didn’t tell her about having polio and only discovering it as an adult.

I had a similar experience and have always felt my parents were ashamed of my polio, not just wanting to protect me, and this had a scarring effect on my self-esteem growing up.

I have let this issue go, but I cannot forgive them. I feel the “they did the best they could do” explanation I have read in self-help books pushes me to forgive, which does not feel doable for me. I have been able to forget, but not forgive. Is this healthy?

Response from Rhoda Olkin, PhD:
In a word, no, it’s not healthy. It is actually in your own best interest to come to a place of forgiveness. Numerous studies indicate the benefits of forgiveness. Let’s keep two things in mind as we consider this.

First, what exactly do you need to forgive? Is it the withholding of the information that you had polio, or is it the shock of how you found out, or it is the idea (not necessarily the reality!) that they were ashamed of you as a person with polio, or all of these? Becoming clear on what you need to forgive might help you – it’s not a blanket “I forgive you (parents) of any and all wrong doing” but rather a more specific “I forgive you for not knowing that telling me as a child was better for me” (for example).

And second, forgiveness is not the same as saying “I would have done it the same way you did if I had been in your position” – forgiveness is not the same as agreeing. It is more akin to understanding – “I understand why you did it, given what you knew, what you thought was best, that there was no one to ask, that you did not mean for it to hurt me further.” You do not say if your parents are still alive; given your age, I am guessing they might not be. It is easier to forgive a real person than an abstraction.

I always encourage my clients to make peace with their parents before they lose the parents, not so much for the parents’ sakes, but for the adult clients’ sakes. Sometimes what is important is saying something to someone who has wounded you, even if you do not believe they will genuinely hear it. This is a milestone of sorts, i.e., giving up the fantasy that your parents will get it right if you just give them one more chance, and recognizing that you need to say something anyway, that the saying is the important part.

Notice that I did not start by defending your parents or trying to explain why they might have withheld your polio from you. I take it on faith that they would not have knowingly done something that would be so hurtful to you if they had all the information available to them about options and probable consequences.

You already know about the absence of any role models, a history of shamefulness about disability, the scary views of eugenics circulating around the time of World War II, and the culture at the time of not talking about many things we are now more open about (e.g., about a child being adopted). These have not helped you. I hope this will – you will feel better, more comfortable, more at ease, more open, if you can bring yourself to forgive them. You may still feel the hurt of not having known until you were an adult, but separate that hurt from the reason you didn’t know, i.e., that your parents didn’t tell you.

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