I remember when Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse novel was adapted for the screen. It took me a while to watch the film because I didn’t see the purpose of retraumatizing myself all over again with facts I already knew. When I finally watched it, I was quite disappointed in the ending. If you haven’t seen the film, I suggest you skip the next paragraph.
At the end, you see the main character returning to his homelands, paddling into the horizon and smiling away like everything was miraculously healed and over. I thought it was a very simplistic narrative that implied that the suffering of residential school survivors ended when they resturned home. It didn’t represent my family’s reality. What happened was much more complicated.
I recently reconnected with my father and saw him for the first time in two years. Residential school complicated many things in our communities, including our relationships. Over the years and after countless hours of therapy, I finally put into practice everything I have learned on radical acceptance. I can see that my own healing forced healing onto my relatives.
If you are not familiar with the lingo of therapy approaches, “radical acceptance is when you stop fighting reality, stop responding with impulsive or destructive behaviours when things aren’t going the way you want them to, and let go of bitterness that may be keeping you trapped in a cycle of suffering.”
The reality is that my dad lacks basic communications skills because of trauma and it makes it hard for him to show up the way I need him to. Radical acceptance is not about enabling the person, but rather accepting aspects of the situation that causes problems. My mom once told me: “Don’t think your father wakes up in the morning with the intention to hurt you. He loves you; he just doesn’t know how to express it in a healthy way.”
Hearing that was such a liberating moment for me. Since then, I have started welcoming what my father is able to give me with empathy rather than resentment.
Radical acceptance is harm reduction, because you meet people where they’re at rather than where you want them to be. For the first time in my life, I saw my father healthy and glowing. My whole life, the relationship with my father was a huge setback, but for the first time, I saw my family moving forward in its long overdue healing process.
We tend to think it’s too late to move forward, to forgive and to express our needs because we think too much harm has been done to even contemplate moving on. Compartmentalizing my feelings towards my father helped me a lot. I’m still mad at him for allowing intergenerational trauma to seep into our lives, but the bottom line is that I still need him in my life.
My father is not fundamentally a bad person, he is just hurt. As I mentioned, I am proud to have him in my life, because he is such a brilliant and funny person. I shouldn’t prevent myself from enjoying quality time with him when he can. Ever.