Is Forgiveness Even Possible After Trauma? With Bill and Laurie Lokey

In our Solo Parent Society groups, we regularly hear from single parents who have experienced abuse of some kind and sometimes from more than one perpetrator. The pain of trauma is so deep and life-altering, is it possible to forgive those who hurt us? Therapists Laurie and Bill Lokey share their perspectives on this significant and complex question. Laurie Lokey is a licensed counselor who has worked at Onsite Workshops for ten years and in private practice in middle Tennessee. Her husband, Bill Lokey served as the senior clinical director for Onsite Workshops supervising over seventy therapists throughout the United States. Bill and Laurie talked with single mom, Elizabeth Cole, about her road to forgiving trauma as part of her story.

Bill shares that defining trauma is fraught with preconceptions. Some think of trauma as life-threatening events, and those events do create trauma in our brain as well as emotional pain, but trauma is broader. Bill says trauma involves emotional and physical pain as well as a sense of helplessness. Trauma sets us up to feel continually unsure of our safety and to be on high alert all the time. Our bodies are in a state of constant readiness to react even when there is no actual threat. Trauma can feel very crazy-making because our reactions are often bigger than what a situation warrants. Those with trauma are on edge and this reactivity makes relationships challenging. Recognizing trauma triggers is part of the journey to heal, as is the process of grieving.

Trauma is interesting because we are each impacted differently by events that happen so even when two people experience the same thing, they process and store the information uniquely. A sense of helplessness is often a contributor to how our bodies respond to trauma and impacts how we are triggered. When we are triggered by a seemingly separate or random event, where we feel afraid and unsafe, we react from the limbic part of our brain and go into fight or flight mode. When we get grounded again and back in our rational brain, we often think, “What happened? Why did I react that way?”

Elizabeth first began addressing trauma from her past three years ago. She met Laurie during an intensive workshop as a last-ditch effort to save her marriage. The relationship ultimately ended in divorce, but Elizabeth began the courageous journey of processing sexual abuse that happened to her as a child. Meeting with Laurie brought so much freedom from shame, Elizabeth knew she needed to continue. The experience was a divine connection and Elizabeth shares working with Laurie has been an incredible time of healing over the last few years.

Laurie says in meeting with Elizabeth she recognized some of the things Elizabeth was carrying and dealing with because she had walked through her own journey dealing with shame, noting, “If you spot it, you got it.” But she also knew the process would take time. They met in regular individual sessions but Elizabeth also did the work needed between sessions. Laurie says she had to learn that pain wouldn’t kill her but not looking at trauma would. She says, avoiding it cost Laurie her first marriage. Laurie shares that it’s not just big “T” trauma events like sexual abuse or devastating car accidents but it is also the impact of little “t” trauma, the chronic daily experience of not enough or too much of something. In our lifetime, these experiences, both big T and little t trauma, add up. Untangling trauma includes processing the big T and the little t experiences that leave us feeling helpless where there was no one to protect us. And this involves so much grief.

Learning to grieve, learning that you are worthy of feeling grief, worthy of feeling hurt and pain over the losses in your life is significant. Laurie shares that children experience loss when they aren’t able to form healthy attachments. This can happen with parents who are too controlling or those who aren’t involved enough. Many of us have experienced wounds like this from our childhood. None of us go through life without suffering loss but some of us experience a lot. Those losses require us to grieve especially if we weren’t taught how to feel our emotions or process them as a child. We need to learn how to be our internal regulator because often we didn’t learn how to as a child. This helps us move out of codependence or addiction and identify where we are on the Cartman’s triangle – victim, rescuer, or prosecutor. When we are living on that triangle, we are stuck in our limbic system and it’s very difficult to have healthy relationships. We find ourselves marrying someone also living on the triangle as we try to assuage our own hurts and the result is “a big hot mess”, says Laurie.

Elizabeth shares that as she’s worked through some of her trauma there have been difficult moments and some definite benefits. When it comes to forgiveness after trauma, Elizabeth said one of the first steps and one of the hardest things for her was forgiving herself. Instead of being able to look at forgiving the perpetrator or her parents, she first had to start with herself. For so long she told herself that what happened to her was her fault and she blamed herself. In counseling, Elizabeth found relief from some of the shame she felt. Laurie helped her understand that some of her behaviors resulted from the abuse she experienced. Having someone meet her where she was, with insight into her past and how she responded, was profound.

We may see dysfunctional or destructive patterns of behavior in our own lives yet be reluctant to identify trauma as a root cause because of the shame we feel. Maybe we blame ourselves and think we are responsible for what happened to us. Some of the voices in our head may tell us we caused the abuse because we were “promiscuous” or never said “No”.

“Brilliant resilience” is how Laurie Lokey describes some of the coping strategies trauma sufferers develop. Children find ways to get what they need and try to decrease their pain in whatever ways they can. The eating disorder she developed at twelve years old was one of those ways as she tried to receive nurture when it wasn’t available through other healthy ways.
When we have experienced trauma, big or small, what is needed is healing connections with safe others including God. But the challenge for trauma sufferers is being able to move toward healthy connection when trust is difficult to find. There are benefits when you engage in the process though.

Elizabeth shares that the journey to forgive herself has allowed her to have a better relationship with herself and to find safe and healthy relationships with others. Now she can protect and care for herself in a healthy way versus engaging in coping behaviors like drinking, sex, and smoking. She can show up for herself in a different way as an adult and is even interacting with God in a new way. Instead of believing she will be loved if she behaves in certain ways, she is more aware she is worthy of love no matter what. And, she has discovered more grace and patience for herself in the process of healing.

So, why is forgiveness so important?
It’s important because unforgiveness keeps us trapped. It allows someone to live rent-free in our head. Usually, there’s a fantasy that gets attached to our unforgiveness. We start to think that “If only that person apologizes” or “if that person finally admits what they’ve done” there will be some magical outcome. Part of forgiveness is letting go of the fantasy that someone else’s action will set us free. Instead, as we choose to let go, we find freedom apart from any other action. We find ourselves accepting what is and living life on life’s terms rather than the way we wish it could be. That acceptance allows us to begin the grieving process. Until we reach that place, we stay stuck and can’t move on.

Elizabeth shares that part of her process toward forgiveness has been accepting certain needs may be met in ways other than she wanted or hoped. There is grief there though. It is painful to want more from the people in your life than they can give you. She is working through the sadness with tears and journaling while learning to receive love in ways they can offer versus an ideal or fantasy that isn’t realistic.

Bill shares that grieving is letting go of things you always thought would be part of your future. Grieving is individual and it’s not linear. It’s a process. When we’ve been hurt and experience loss, grieving becomes part of our forgiveness journey too. We may want to hold on to the pain and not forgive because it seems like if we do forgive, the offender may be getting away with something. So, we tether our life to this other person, and say, “I’ll never be okay until they make the right decision”. Instead, it's about saying I want to free myself so I can move ahead with my life and not be waiting on them to do something right.

Sometimes we think that we will forgive by moving on, sucking it up, and just “getting through it”. Laurie says this is called denial. There is a lot of hurt and pain in this world that we must grieve. As we do that, the more we need to learn the depths of the goodness of God and invite Him into our sadness and conflict. If we don’t, we miss intimacy with Him. This is the same intimacy we find in our relationships when we go into the places of the heart and say, “Ouch! That really hurt.”

So, how do we start with forgiving those that have harmed or abused us? Where do we start with forgiving those people?

Laurie says learning to love yourself is the first step. If you don’t love who God made you to be, you won’t be able to love anyone else. And forgiveness is a practice. Some tools are helpful. Laurie said she loves John Eldredge’s practice of breaking soul ties and releasing them to Jesus, putting the Holy Spirit between you and them. There are times when Laurie remembers those who have hurt her and she chooses to practice blessing them. It doesn’t mean she has to have a relationship with them but practicing forgiveness for her looks like being kind and praying for them while holding the fact that she is worthy of love and belonging.
Forgiveness is a practice and a process. Robert shares that he worked hard at healing through and forgiving many harms done by his ex-wife. However, now he is remarried and finds himself being triggered by something innocent his spouse will do that is unrelated. Parts of his story he thought were dormant rise up again leaving him feeling helpless, rejected, or afraid of abandonment at times. This is one of the difficult places we get stuck in as emotions fall like dominoes and we are flooded. When we get triggered into fight, flight, or freeze, there are parts of our personality that take over so we can survive. Bill shares one of those parts for him would go underground and hide regardless of the results. Later, in his rational brain, he could consider what that part was trying to protect by avoiding. This discovery process isn’t one we can do alone. We need someone to help us work through and understand so we can step into those fears rather than react when they get triggered. Healing like this is needed or we will bring those wounds into any new relationship. Part of our healing is identifying lies we believe so we can change our thinking with the truth.

As single parents, the time we have alone is a gift. Even though we’re busy with life and our kids, we can use this time to pay attention to what God is doing and to walk with Him, and do the work of healing. This will benefit us and our future relationships.

What is the healthy approach to forgiving the perpetrators of sexual abuse?

Elizabeth shares that she doesn’t want to think about that person and remember past events and be triggered. Laurie shares that first we need to go back and rescue that hurting child. We can begin to nurture them, love them, teach them they are lovable and remove the definition as a sexual object. We can do some work with EMDR, brainspotting, or trauma-safe processing so we don’t re-traumatize ourselves again. Safety is of utmost importance. We have to know there are safeguards in place and a way to get grounded again before we go into our stories. Then we can start with acknowledging the truth, not the details of abuse, but naming it. When we make it real, we can grieve it, accept it, and process it through the lens of truth.  
Forgiveness is already complex, but it is even more difficult after trauma. There aren’t any easy answers or quick solutions but there is hope. If you are processing traumatic events, whether little “t” or big “T”, find a trauma-informed therapist who can walk with you as you heal and ideally one who will invite God into the process with you.

Learn more about Bill and Laurie Lokey here:
Every month we focus on a theme important to single parents and this month our focus is on Forgiveness. Each week in our online Solo Parent Society groups, we talk further about these topics.
Single parents, we invite you to join the discussion in any one of our groups, meeting 6 days a week. Check out our game nights too for laughter and connection.
As you walk the journey of single parenting, we want you to know you are not alone! Solo Parent Society’s mission is to offer encouragement and hope through our weekly groups,  our communities on Facebook and Instagram (@soloparentsociety), and our weekly podcast. Subscribe here on AccessMore or wherever you get your podcasts. You can access all of this and more using the free Solo Parent app.

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