I frequently get the question: Can I forgive a person who has passed away? Even though the other person no longer is among the living, the wounds of the past still can be very much present in those who are left behind. When resentment lingers in you, it seems natural to try and take the best medicine possible to cure that resentment. Forgiveness is such strong medicine.
Yet, the deceased person cannot now show remorse, or repent, or make amends in any way. Reconciliation on this earth no longer is possible. Perhaps it is impossible now to offer forgiveness to one who has died.
Let us take five looks at this situation, which may answer the question about forgiving the deceased.
First Look: What Is Forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a moral virtue as are justice, patience, and kindness. There are varying degrees of perfection in understanding and expressing each virtue. In the case of forgiveness, its perfection is to: a) understand that you have been wronged; b) be willing to abandon resentment and to take steps to reduce it, and c) love the one who was unfair to you and to offer that love unconditionally to the offending person. Further, the offer of forgiveness reaches an interpersonal perfection when the other person readily accepts that forgiveness, becomes trustworthy, and the two (or more) people have a genuine reconciliation of coming together again with mutual respect, trust, and love. See Enright (2012) for more details and for a defense of moral love as the essence of forgiving.
Second Look: One Does Not Have to Be Perfect.
One need not reach perfection in any of the moral virtues to have exercised that virtue. In the case of forgiveness, if the forgiver shows restraint in seeking revenge and is respectful without feeling loving or having the will to love, this still is exercising the virtue. It is not in its perfect form, but is forgiveness nonetheless. Even if what I am calling above the interpersonal perfection is not reached, the one offended still is exercising the moral virtue of forgiveness if there is a willingness to reconcile, which has not occurred and even if it may never occur. The willingness often is brought to an actual reconciliation only if the other changes and is not a threat to the forgiver.
We need not reach perfection to be participating in forgiveness. Is it not the same in learning mathematics or in playing a sport? An adolescent who is just learning algebra is engaging in mathematical calculation even if she does not know the higher level math, say, of calculus. An adolescent who plays soccer, but does not have the dexterity of a professional, is participating in the sport. One need not appropriate forgiveness in its perfect essence of loving the other or be able to behaviorally reconcile to be expressing the virtue.
Third Look: Exercising Forgiveness Imperfectly Toward the Deceased
We now can see that it is reasonable to offer forgiveness in its imperfect form. If one forgives the deceased, there can be a willingness to abandon resentment and to be at least respectful toward the one who has died. How can one be respectful? This can occur, for example, by talking respectfully about the person to others. As an example, in one of our studies, a Jewish mother who was a victim of incest took her sons to the cemetery and a respectful ceremony for the dead toward her father (Freedman & Enright, 1996). This was giving him a good name for the next generation, not because of what he did, but in spite of this. As another example, some people donate money to a charity in the name of the deceased, thus showing love toward that person. One can have a desire for reconciliation in this: If the person were still alive, then the forgiver would be willing to consider such a reconciliation, dependent, of course, on the trustworthiness of the other. The desire cannot be fulfilled and so this is part of the imperfection of forgiving the deceased. Yet, wanting to show respect or even love and demonstrating these qualities, along with a desire to reconcile if this were possible, all are part of what forgiveness is, even if these characteristics of the virtue are not complete or perfect expressions.
Fourth Look: But, If the Offender Must Apologize Before I Forgive, then Forgiving Is Impossible.
It is true that some religious groups make an apology a necessary condition before the people can forgive. From a philosophical perspective, an apology is not necessary because it traps the forgiver with resentment. Why should you trap yourself this way because of an offending person’s behavior, or in this case, the lack of behavior toward you? You are allowing the offender to hurt you again if you insist on the apology that is not forthcoming. Making forgiveness your unconditional response puts you in control of your own health.
Fifth Look: Why Would We Want to Offer Forgiveness Toward the Deceased?
As we have seen, forgiving a deceased person is possible. People want to do this so that the resentment in the heart does not live on long after the other is gone. That resentment can last for the rest of the person’s life. We have worked with elderly hospice patients, who knew they were dying, and some of them were carrying resentments within them for decades (Hansen, Enright, Baskin, & Klatt, 2009). Without the forgiveness intervention, they may have died with that resentment, and yet their free will choice to forgive set them free, with improved psychological health, including a sense of hope for their future, as their physical condition declined. When families bury a person, they do not necessarily bury the hatchet, as the expression goes, and they certainly do not easily bury the resentment that can put them in an early grave. Forgiving the dead can resurrect a wounded heart and give greater hope and psychological well-being to those left behind in this imperfect world.