Anatomy of an Apology, and Living Atonement

So, how does one apologize?

If things have become so broken and toxic between two people that the parties no longer speak, and either via spoken or unspoken agreement there is no contact, how does one extend a for-real, heartfelt, growth-evident, highly specific apology, perhaps seeking but not expecting forgiveness?

And if such deep wounds require layers of cyclical healing to mend, such that additional apologies over time would deepen accordingly, how can complete peace be achieved in the absence of communication?

If a heart-wrenching “I’m sorry” is cried in the middle of the wilderness and there’s no one there to hear it, does it do any good? And is it still helpful if no forgiveness will ever be offered?

Often, social norms and our stoic legal system prevent healing. The icy, quit-cold-turkey separation that is necessary for a time serves to sever unhealthy connections and cycles, but that’s a tourniquet. It serves its purpose to stop the bleeding and prevent re-injury.

At some point, the initial remedy, if not replaced, will hinder healing rather than aid it. The wound underneath will begin to fester, and toxins will enter the blood. A medical fix intended to be temporary will prevent the cure.

I used to feel sorry for myself, ruminating on injustice, wishing I felt morally free to tell the “whole story” rather than a narrative that protected those who I felt had ruined my life. I am twice divorced, and now generally prefer not to remember. But back then, for a time, I wanted to air the ways I had tried so hard, poured myself out until I was depleted time and time again, yet in the end felt taken for granted and betrayed. I wanted Justice (capital “J,” bold). I wanted to sit atop a high throne of righteousness, with my sweet, sweet innocence and the wronging done to me on display, and I wanted sympathy.

I replayed hurtful memories like a sad movie over and over again, re-injuring myself each time. I wanted those I associated with my pain to witness the dramatic art show of my shattered innocence, the purity, wholeness, and happiness that was stolen, and I wanted them to be crushed by guilt and sorrow and pain like the pain that consumed me. (Of course, they were living their own versions of this hell on earth, in part caused by me.)*

But more than that, greater than fantasies of emotional vengeance – especially as a young 20-something (which are so embarrassing to remember now!) – and the impossibility of an “easier” way out of the difficulties of being a young, poor, disconnected, very sad single Mom, I wanted to find the new best path forward for the sake of my daughters.

I knew that harsh words, consumption by anger and hurt and lack of healing, fears for my daughters, raw grief that I may never find love and they would be broken because of my failures to provide a whole, healthy, in-tact family for them, and my sheer loneliness: I knew that if I acted on these and stubbornly stayed stuck in that place, their childhoods really would be at risk.

So instead, I quietly set my jaw and leaned into what felt like gale force winds. I hardened myself to the stark elements of my reality. I determined: “If I have to live through this, I’ll learn all I can so I can help others. I know I am not the only one with a similar experience, and I can use it to love others once I get through. Because I have to get through.”

Most importantly: I established and maintained a high standard of communication to give them the most seamless two-home situation I could. I determined that the girls would never feel torn by our disagreement and anger, though we did engage in bitter battles they were not exposed to in the early years.

When they tearfully asked why they didn’t have one home, why we weren’t all together, I deflected, and talked about how much they were loved and how safe they were in each home. I gently comforted them, saying how lucky they were to have so many loving adults looking out for them.

My stomach in my throat, body trembling, I filled their hearts and minds with the healthiest portions of the truth of the life challenges they did not choose, but were forced to adapt to. For the most part, they were protected from the issues caused by and to be mended by adults.

In my utter brokenness, I put them first.

Slowly, it became easier, and the early, optimistic, blurry vision I had of eventually peacefully sharing life events such as joint birthday parties for the girls began to sharpen into focus.

I hope my daughters don’t see me as weak or broken because sometimes they witnessed my sadness, which at times seemed bottomless. I carried such guilt for not preserving the marriage and for living paycheck to paycheck, including living in a shabby, moldy apartment that caused asthma for my eldest daughter part of the time they were in preschool. These self-judged parenting failures aside, mostly I think they see me as their loving, goofy, nurturing, occasionally spacey, smart, optimistic, earnest Mom.

The best part? They don’t have to think too much about it because they’re living their own rich lives, investing in their interests, education, and friendships. Figuring out life on their terms. Because as candid as I have become with them about activism, my work life, and some limited elements regarding dating relationships when I think there’s life lessons they can learn, it’s not their job to carry my burdens nor worry about me.

I am their parent. They get to be the kids.

And I’m not their only parent who took this approach.

Our daughters would be nowhere NEAR the successful, loving, free, hilarious, and healthy teens they are now without the connection maintained with all their parents. I feel guilty that my early fear and anger prevented some of that free connection with their daddy when they were very young and before they had their own cell phones. That access improved over time, but it should have been greater.

We raised them with a child-centered focus, and we have each individually matured through the parts that were temporarily self-centered. The early, tenuous sacrifices we all made pay off daily.

At some point along the way, I eventually came to realize: their father was the same kind, loving, talented, nurturing person I met at eighteen and knew then would be a wonderful man and father, though it took time for me to see that in him again. Even now, we continue to strive to become our ideal selves. We are closer to being the wholesome people we were always meant to be, before other areas of our own immaturity and less-than-wholeness tried to run the show.

So, how does one find this peace and healing, if they cannot say or receive the words “I’m sorry” sufficient to capture and honor the deep chasm of pained memories?

Believe me – I looked for the magic button for a lot of years, and never found it. You cannot fast forward the process. But you can fake it ‘til you make it.

Day by day, with reflection, and with commitment to change the places that created the hurt, even if the other is not present nor able or willing to see it. Living with hope that someday, some morning, eyes will open to see telltale signs that a new, more healthful reality has been slowly emerging. The old paradigm has forever shifted. Hope and faith can begin to stand on wobbly, new fawn legs that will strengthen, and that soon, youthful bounds of joy will usher in a new season. Grace can begin to breathe.

Spring will bring renewal. Each passing year will bring more freedom and peace. Even if the most thorough apology is never expressed nor accepted, layers of healing will come to those who seek it and live it.

And it’ll be okay.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~


There are as many sides to this story as the people who lived through it. I honor and love them, and thank them for participating in the healing process that continues. If I didn’t think this could help other hurting families, I would not ask them to wade through these old personal tragedies with me. I hope our efforts increase justice and wholeness for ourselves and others.

My second husband is a lovely person, probably surfing the coast of Mexico somewhere. We wish one another peace and happiness. As it should be.

AND: if you can avoid divorce, please, by all means, do. Don’t just stick it out without change, but seek every form of support you can find, especially if you have children. If you think marriage is hard, try co-parenting with an ex! Then if you’ve tried it all, at least you know you’ve left it all on the track, and it’s time to renew your energy to take on a whole new challenge.

In all things, be love, and it will be okay.

About earthysara

Maine girl at heart, always, living in San Diego. You can take the girl out of the woods...
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