Yes, you can forgive someone who is deceased. Forgiveness includes thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. One can think of the other person as possessing inherent (unconditional) worth. One can cultivate feelings of compassion for the person, not because of what he or she did, but in spite of this. Even behaviors can be a part of the forgiveness. For example, one might donate to the deceased person’s favorite charity. One might say a kind word about the deceased to family members. Depending on one’s religious beliefs, the forgiver can offer a prayer for the one who died.
It was the early 1990’s and I just recently did an interview for a Chicago newspaper. The journalist published my home telephone number within the article. For the next two weeks, it seemed as if the phone just would not stop ringing. The people who called were seeking information about how to forgive. “There is a genuine hunger out there for people to know how to go about forgiving,” was my conclusion to family and colleagues.
Because we had published the first-ever empirical article on forgiveness in a peer-reviewed journal article only a few short years before this, in 1989, there was little out there instructing people on how to forgive those who have deeply hurt them. Because of the ground-breaking work of Msgr. John Hebl, with whom I had the honor of publishing the second-ever empirical article on forgiveness in a journal, in 1993, there was emerging scientific support for our Process Model of Forgiveness.
About this same time, the late and great Dr. William Walker of Madison, who ran radio stations, wrote a letter to me (email was not big yet). He explained that many years ago, he received his doctoral degree from the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I was (and am) a professor. Dr. Walker explained to me that he was drawn to our forgiveness work, had the financial means to bring this to an important level, and he had an interest in joining the research. I enthusiastically agreed and a strong collegial relationship and friendship developed.
When my dear friend William passed away, his son Thomas Walker took up the cause and provided the necessary funding to keep the IFI viable and expanding, as he does to this day.
Thank you, William and Thomas!
Given that we were getting some financial support and the many requests for forgiveness information continued, some of my colleagues and I decided to try to form an entity with the goal of serving people who wanted information on how to forgive. This was to start as a service entity for all who were interested in forgiving.
Our little group decided to take the non-profit route and developed the 501(c)3 entity, the International Forgiveness Institute, Inc. (IFI) in Madison, Wisconsin in 1994. A Board of Directors was formed to help guide the development of this organization. Thank you, Board Members, for your dedicated service to our IFI! At the time of its formation there was nothing “international” about this organization. Yet, it was the vision, the promise of such expansion, that led to our keeping that word “International” in the title. We, of course, started small, without even a website.
A major turn occurred for us at the beginning of the 21st century. Because our work was having success in the mental health field with our Process Model of Forgiveness, I had an idea: Why not start to introduce forgiveness to children and adolescents? After all, if they will experience injustices, perhaps even severe injustices in this world, why not equip them with the scientifically-supported approach of forgiveness to reduce the resentment, caused by the injustices, so that they can be resilient in their emotional well-being and in their healthy family interactions?
With the idea of prevention in mind, we decided to build forgiveness curricula for children, starting in first grade (age 6 and 7). We did so through age-appropriate children’s stories, such as Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who. The children, in their own classrooms, then begin to see what forgiveness is, how story characters navigate interpersonal conflict, and what happens when people forgive. We piloted this curriculum for the first time in Belfast, Northern Ireland, did the research on this endeavor through the university, and published the first empirical evaluations of this work in 2007.
The results were dramatic! Children, upon hearing stories and reflecting on the theme of forgiving, actually reduced in their own anger. Teachers saw greater cooperation among students in classrooms and teachers reported to us that they, themselves as teachers, improved in their own teaching skills as a result of being a forgiveness instructor.
The Forgiveness Education project grew to such an extent that we now have a complete set of curriculum guidesfrom pre-kindergarten (age 4) all the way up to the end of high school (age 18), including an anti-bullying guide and two guides for parents: A Family Guide(for those with primary-aged children) and Strengthening Families (for those with middle-school aged children). Dr. Jeanette Knutson, Amber Osmulski, and Dr. Matthew Hirshberg helped to craft these guides. Thank you, Jeanette, Amber, and Matthew!
The Forgiveness Education curriculum guides have been ordered by educators from over 30 countries across the world. Other international endeavors include both the Jerusalem Conference on Forgiveness and the Rome Conference on Forgiveness and a new Forgiveness Education initiative in Bethlehem in the Middle East. Thank you, Mr. Thomas and Terri Lucke, for your generous funding! We now, I think, have earned the word “International” in our organization’s title.
Our long-time Director at the IFI, Dennis Blang, has been instrumental in sending far and wide information about the Forgiveness Education guides, in maintaining our website, publishing the Forgiveness News, crafting the electronic newsletters, and overseeing the everyday important activities of our institute. Thank you, Dennis! And thank you to our earlier Directors,Dr. Gayle ReedandMary Mead!
The service work has expanded so that we now are serving homeless people, those in prisons, and we have started a bumper-sticker campaign, “Drive for Others’ Lives” as a way to help make the roads a more civil environment. Many of these new ideas come from our stellar volunteer at the IFI, Jacqueline Song. Thank you, Jacqueline!
A big thank you goes out to our long-term President, Roy Lloyd, and to our Ethics Committee members for their dedicated work in examining our protocols that impact the homeless, those in prison, and others. Thank you to those “on the ground” who oversee important forgiveness programs in Belfast (Leah Judge), Greece (Dr. Peli Galiti), and Monrovia, Liberia (Rev. Kortu Brown and Mr. George Cooper). We want to thank all who have financially contributed to our efforts over this quarter-of-a-century.
We started with one idea: Forgiveness is important as it can quell unhealthy anger and improve mental health and relationships. Many are catching on to this idea. In our humble opinion, forgiveness should now become a natural part of families, schools, organizations, and individual hearts for the good of humanity.
You need not find any excuses for your husband’s behavior if you are to forgive him. Forgiveness is not based on finding excuses, but instead is based on seeing his worth, not because of what he did, but in spite of this. Further, try to see his inner world. Is he wounded in any way? Confused? Do you see a human being rather than someone who is less than human? These kinds of perspectives can increase empathy and foster forgiveness.
Sometimes our anxiety comes from not feeling safe. Sometimes our not feeling safe emerges when others treat us unfairly. In other words, you may be expecting poor treatment from others now, even those who usually are fair.
A first step may be to think of one person who may have hurt you and at whom you still harbor resentment. You can forgive through the exact same pathway as described, for example, in the book, Forgiveness Is a Choice. With anger lessened, anxiety can diminish. Of course, this will vary for each person. We have to be gentle with ourselves as we learn to forgive, to give up anger, and to know with some confidence that we can meet the next interpersonal challenge with forgiveness, helping us to meet these challenges with less anxiety than in the past.
It seems that you already have been patient, waiting for her to reduce the resentment, but it is not happening. It is time to first forgive her for her unforgiveness and then gently approach her about it. It seems that she still has work to do to completely forgive you. You might want to ask her to forgive you and then wait patiently for her to accomplish the task.
Forgiveness is not a superficial action (such as saying, “It’s ok” when someone is unfair to you). Instead, it is a moral virtue, as is justice and kindness and love. Aristotle told us over 3,500 years ago that one challenge in life is to become more perfected in the virtues. In other words, we do grow more proficient in our understanding and expression of the virtues, but only if we practice them. It is a struggle to grow in any virtue, including forgiveness. So, first be aware that you can grow in this virtue. Then be willing to practice it, with the goal of maturing in love, which is what forgiveness is (loving those who are unkind to us). You need a strong will to keep persevering in the struggle to grow in forgiveness. In sum, you need: understanding of what forgiveness is, practice, a strong will, and keeping your eye fixed on the goal of improving in love a little more each day.
Forgiveness is a response to injustice and as such it never ignores justice. Instead, it is a response of mercy in the face of such injustice. To give mercy as a conscious choice when experiencing another person’s injustice is a heroic act of virtue, hardly a lack of courage.
When people practice forgiveness, they do not ignore justice, but instead give mercy and strive for justice at the same time. The justice sought is likely to be good because it is not mingled with resentment. Thus, forgiveness hardly is a cop-out. Did I convince you?
Kids say the darnedest things. But when 3-year-old Holland, the daughter of blogger Mary Katherine Backstrom, explained what “forgiveness” means, she did it in a beautifully heartfelt and simplistic way. And while kids are known for their outlandish statements (seriously — where do they hear these things?!), this little girl happened to be pretty accurate with her definition, single-handedly reminding us all to soften our hearts a little more often.
Backstrom described the evening’s events — which included some pre-bedtime arguing — that led to the moment the 3-year-old took it upon herself to go ahead and be the bigger person and “forgive” her mom:
“My daughter and I just had a knock-down, drag-out bedtime hour,” the mom wrote on Facebook. “Finally, about ten minutes ago, I put her to bed and through clinched teeth said, ‘I love you, Holland, but not another word tonight. You are going to sleep now. I’m done fussing over stuffed animals.’”
Of course, her daughter had just one more thing to say. The words that came out of her mouth, however, were definitely unexpected.
“‘Mommy,’ my three year old said, staring me down with venom in her tiny voice… ‘I FORGIVE YOU!!!’”:
The mom was surprised to hear this and followed up by asking her daughter if she knew what “forgiveness” meant. Her response proves that this tot is wise beyond her years.
“‘It means you were wrong, and I’m tired of being mad, and now I’m going to sleep and my heart won’t have a tummy ache.’”
The mom ended the post by noting that this was not only a humbling moment for her as a mom, but it could also serve as an important lesson for everyone.
“Tonight I was taught a lesson in forgiveness by a three year old,” the mom wrote. “It was a gut punch, too. And you’re dang right I climbed in that bed and loved on her. Because to be honest, MY heart had a bit of a tummy ache. I was reminded by my toddler to never go to bed in anger. Because when you do, your heart will have a tummy ache. And you know what? I’ve been alive for 35 years, and I’ve got to give it to her: She’s not wrong.”
Psychologists, meanwhile, say that forgiveness is somewhat more of a complicated matter. Psychotherapist Nancy Colier has defined forgiveness as a type of “freedom” in her writings for Psychology Today:
“Forgiveness, ultimately, is about freedom,” she writes. “When we need someone else to change in order for us to be okay, we are a prisoner. In the absence of forgiveness, we’re shackled to anger and resentment, uncomfortably comfortable in our misbelief that non-forgiveness rights the wrongs of the past and keeps the other on the hook.”
She goes on to write that withholding forgiveness — holding out for a change from the other party —can actually leave us powerless.
“What we want from the other, the one we can’t forgive, is most often, love,” she writes. “Forgiveness is ultimately about choosing to offer ourselves love—and with it, freedom.”
Or in other, simpler words, forgiveness is releasing anger so that our hearts don’t have a “tummy ache.” Which, honestly, sounds like the healthiest course of action for all parties.
Well said, Holland. Well said.
This article was written by Augusta Statz and is reposted, with permission, from the website Simplemost.com. The goal of Simplemost “is to provide women with the news that can impact their lives, along with ideas and tips to help make things just a little easier.”
Forgiveness is never easy when the injustice is strong and the hurt deep. So, please know that you are not alone. There are several approaches you can take. First, you might want to start by forgiving someone else who is easier to forgive as a way to build your confidence. Also, are you expecting to be done with the forgiveness process in a short amount of time? If the hurt is deep it can take months of steady effort to forgive. Finally, I urge you to look toward the fruit of your forgiveness: lower anger, more hope. As you see these as endpoints to your forgiveness it might strengthen your will to persevere.
Forgiveness and trust differ. Forgiveness as an act of mercy toward an offender can be offered unconditionally. Trust needs to be earned if the offense is deeply serious. Forgiveness is a moral virtue. Trust accompanies reconciliation, which is not a moral virtue but instead is a negotiation strategy between two or more people. Finally, you can forgive without trusting the other, at least in those areas of his or her weakness. For example, you can forgive a compulsive gambler and watch your wallet.