I understand your point that I can forgive a person who has died because forgiveness in this case is an internal transformation from resentment to thoughts that the other has inherent worth, with the accompanying compassion toward the person. Yet, what about a situation in which I want to seek forgiveness and the other is no longer among the living?

The answer depends on your belief system. If you are a secularist or atheist, you can go to the person’s family members if what happened affected more that the now-deceased person. You can describe what you did and ask them for their forgiveness. If you are a monotheistic believer, you can go to God and confess your transgression and ask for forgiveness. You need not keep the feeling of guilt in your own heart, but can experience relief.

For more information, see Faith and Religion.

Teaching Children About Forgiveness Results in Mature Adult Thinking About Forgiveness

“If you’ve seen your children struggle to forgive someone for hurting them, you know that forgiveness is complicated,” says Dr. Robert Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute. “After all, forgiveness is complicated for adults, too.”

Rather than discourage us, however, that reality should in fact encourage parents and teachers to begin teaching children about forgiveness as early as possible and certainly by the time they are in pre-kindergarten, Dr. Enright outlines in an article posted yesterday in Greater Good Magazine. Entitled How We Think About Forgiveness at Different Ages, the article describes how a child’s understanding of forgiving develops as she grows older.

“In over 30 years of studying forgiveness, I have interviewed children and adolescents, as well as college students and adults—and found that our understanding of forgiveness evolves over childhood and young adulthood, partly influenced by what we learn from our parents and communities,” Dr. Enright says.


“Helping our children reach their highest level of forgiving can set them up to  live a life without unhealthy anger and with more peace.”
Dr. Robert Enright


Dr. Enright’s research indicates that no matter what age a child is at, he starts with some misconceptions about forgiveness including these:

  • Young children often believe that the proclamation of “I am sorry” followed by the automatic reply of “I forgive you” can solve any conflict.
  • Fourth graders often equate it with first getting even.
  • Many 9 to 10-year-old children think they could forgive and make up with classmates only if those classmates first got what they deserved–punishment for their misbehavior.
  • Compared to fourth graders, seventh graders usually develop what is called a “reciprocal perspective” where they can think of themselves and others at the same time but they often say it will be easier to forgive if they are first compensated for what happened to them.
  • Many 10th graders take a more complex view of forgiving where the focus is on their peer group and their family context. Here they can understand that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation, and that it is possible to forgive while seeking justice. At the same time, however, there is a tendency to occasionally over-emphasize the advice of the peer group. If the group frowns on the idea of forgiving, then the person may refrain from offering the mercy of forgiveness toward those who were unfair.

Those and other misconceptions children hold about forgiveness can be overcome as they learn and practice true forgiveness, according to Dr. Enright.

Children can reach a profound understanding of forgiveness in adulthood by persistently practicing it, with the help of parents, when they are hurt by others,” Dr. Enright adds. “Such learning, begun early in life, is a building block for mature adult thinking about forgiveness. Worldwide, it is one path toward peace.”

Read the full article: How We Think About Forgiveness at Different Ages


Through articles, videos, quizzes, and podcasts, Greater Good Magazine bridges the gap between scientific journals and people’s daily lives, particularly for parents, educators, business leaders, and health care professionals. Its goal is to turn scientific research into tools and tips for a happier life and a more compassionate society.

Greater Good Magazine is published by the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at the University of California, Berkeley. Since 2001, the GGSC has been at the fore of a new scientific movement to explore the roots of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior—the science of a meaningful life.


Learn more at the Greater Good Science Center:

Volunteers in Syracuse, New York, Reach Out to Spread the Word About Forgiveness Education

Mary Lou Coons is one of those always-optimistic individuals who uses every tool available to her to overcome life’s adversities–like the brain and spinal cord maladies that have caused her to endure repeated surgeries and years of suffering. Not one to be slowed down by such difficulties, Mary Lou decided to become a self-appointed “forgiveness ambassador” and has been on a mission to teach as many others as she can about the benefits of forgiveness.

This year alone, Mary Lou (who lives in Syracuse, NY) has:

  • Single-handedly convinced her parish elementary school to adopt Forgiveness Education in all of its classrooms from pre-kindergarten
    Mary Lou Coons with her puppet Lily.

    through 6th grade;

  • Organized and set up a booth to promote forgiveness to the more than 1,000 attendees at a Women’s Conference in Syracuse, NY–resulting in more of the state’s schools considering the use of Forgiveness Curriculum Guides; 
  • Developed Forgiveness Education videos featuring her puppet Lily through the Puppets For Peace Foundation she established 13-years-ago; and,
  • Introduced Dr. Enright and his staff to two native-Rwandan missionaries who quickly agreed to teach the IFI Forgiveness Education Program in three grade schools they established following the Rwandan Civil War and Genocide.

Mary Lou first contacted the International Forgiveness Institute (IFI) more than seven years ago just days after her second Chiari Malformation brain surgery (technically known as posterior fossa decompression surgery) at a Milwaukee, WI hospital. She had learned that IFI-founder Dr. Robert Enright was pioneering Forgiveness Education work with children and she thought her passion for ventriloquism and puppets could somehow supplement those efforts.

Surgery after surgery, recovery after recovery, Mary Lou never abandoned her passion for her Puppets For Peace Foundation and its mission of “spreading peace, love and joy to others.” With love and forgiveness at the heart of all her efforts, Mary Lou says she learned “how to suffer well” and how to give hope to others who were struggling, too.

“In order to suffer well, you need to love,” Mary Lou writes in one of her website blog entries. “When suffering is accepted with love, it is no longer suffering, but is changed into joy.”

Earlier this year, Mary Lou decided to talk about Dr. Enright’s forgiveness curriculum with one of the pre-K teachers at Holy Family School–a Roman Catholic elementary school on the west edge of Syracuse. That teacher, Nancy Whelan, was so impressed that she arranged a meeting for Mary Lou with the school’s principal, Sister Christina Marie Luczynski.

Shortly after that meeting, Holy Family School officially joined the scores of other  elementary schools in the state of New York and around the country that teach Forgiveness Education at every grade level. That IFI program uses proven Social Emotional Learning (SEL) techniques to teach students about the five moral qualities most important in forgiving another person–inherent worth, moral love, kindness, respect and generosity–and has been scientifically proven to benefit students by decreasing anger, increasing empathy and cooperation, and improving academic achievement.

Mary Lou Coons and Holy Family School teacher Nancy Whelan distributed forgiveness education materials at the October 26th 10th Annual Syracuse (NY) Catholic Women’s Conference.

Not content to recruit just one school into the program, Mary Lou teamed up with Nancy Whelan again and this time the dynamic duo set up a display booth at the 10th Annual Syracuse Catholic Women’s Conference. Together, the two women staffed a Forgiveness Education booth and tried to get forgiveness materials into the hands of every one of the more than 1,000 attendees crowded into the Convention Center for the Oct. 26 event.

Their on-site efforts and follow-up contacts resulted in several other Syracuse-area schools now considering using the IFI’s Forgiveness Education Curriculum Guides. Equally important, hundreds of New York women learned about the importance of forgiveness with many of them searching online for additional information causing a spike in the number of visitors to the IFI website following the Conference.

As part of her ongoing forgiveness mission, Mary Lou is now planning to develop a series of short videos with her favorite puppet Lily about forgiveness education and love. You can view one of her pilot vignettes called “Forgiveness Education” on her Puppets For Peace website.

Learn More:

Editor’s Note: Details on Forgiveness Education in Rwanda will be posted here shortly.

I am working with clients who had alcoholic parents. These clients, now adults, tend to downplay the seriousness of their parents’ addiction. In other words, the clients tend to say this: “My parents simply did the best that they could.” There is an obvious denial of injustice by the parents. Here is the complication: The clients in so denying any wrongdoing by the parents are taking out their anger on their own children. What do you suggest I do to break this hurtful denial in my clients?

Denial can take time, but I find that emotional pain can break through the denial when you ask about that inner pain. So, to start, I suggest that you ask these questions of your clients: How are your children doing? Are they having any adjustment problems? What is the nature of these problems? Do you feel sad or frustrated or scared when you see the challenges in your children?

Give the clients a chance to see the children’s adjustment challenges and to assess their own (the clients’) pain regarding those challenges. Once the clients can see their own pain with regard to their own children’s struggles, now it is time to ask the clients: Are your children possibly inheriting your own discontent, anger, sadness, or other emotional challenges?

It is at this point that you can begin to explore the family-of-origin hurts that the clients had experienced. In summary, start with the clients’ children’s difficulties which likely are present. Then turn to how the clients’ own challenges are affecting their children. This can serve as motivation for the clients to see how they have inherited pain and now are passing this on to their own children. At this point, the clients may be open to forgiving their own parents.

Learn more at Forgiveness for Couples.

A critic of forgiveness education said to me that forgiveness education will never be effective if the students keep getting contradictory messages between home and school. As teachers do forgiveness education instruction in school, this can be undone in the home as parents are passive toward or against the idea of forgiveness. What are your thoughts on this?

It is an imperfect world and we get contradictory messages all the time. Do we give up on that which can be helpful to students because parents have not had the opportunity to explore forgiveness in some depth? Having a chance to explore forgiveness and giving it a try in school might help the children to overcome unjust treatment even when parents give a different message.

Learn more at How Forgiveness Benefits Kids and The Anti-Bullying Forgiveness Program.

I know that self-forgiveness follows a similar path as occurs when forgiving another person for unjust behavior. Do you think there is more to self-forgiveness than this?

Yes. As people realize that they have broken their own standards, it is common that they also have offended other people. For example, even if someone was intoxicated, was speeding alone in the car, crashed and broke a leg, this is not an isolated event. Family members may have to drive the person to work for a while. The employer may be inconvenienced because of days missed in rehabilitation of the leg. The insurance company now has to pay for this intemperate action. So, as you self-forgive, consider who has been hurt by your actions. You might want to go to at least some of them (family members, for example) and ask for forgiveness.

For additional information, see Self-Forgiveness.

Your critic has another issue on which I would like you to respond, please. He is a mental health professional who said this: One of his clients who was angry about her divorce sent a strong letter to her ex-husband asserting how unfair he was. This made her feel much better. There was no need for forgiveness. How would you respond?

The technique employed above is what we call catharsis, or “letting off steam.” Yes, this can help in the short-run. As you ask someone who just sent such a letter, you might get a report of feeling empowered or relieved. Yet, there is a 25-year longitudinal study by Judith Wallerstein who found that many people who felt unjustly treated in the divorce are still suffering from considerable anger 10 years after the divorce. In other words, the short-term catharsis may not last and may require a stronger approach to reduce unhealthy anger. Forgiveness may be more effective in the long-run, if the client willingly chooses forgives and is not pressured into it.

For additional information, see Forgiveness for Couples.