The life history of forgiving a wrong


Murray Parkes in 1975 proposed, on the basis of interviews with bereaved patients, that bereavement is a process involving different stages.  The hoped for end result of the ‘bereavement process’ is that the person can get on with living life without the interference of prolonged or obsessive grief.  They may well think about the loved one but the emotional reactions will not be so intrusive that they affect their functioning.

The stages involve initial disbelief, denial, anger, acceptance, grief at accepting it, unrealistically good appraisal of the deceased, grappling with problem issues, realistic appraisal of the deceased, realistic acceptance, decision that mourning has run its course.  Bereavement of a loved one is of course a major event.

Like bereavement, forgiveness might involve a series of stages which enables emotional processing to occur.  They may not involve denial and grief but other reactions.  It could involve experiencing feelings of injustice, anger or hurt, expressing these feelings to the perpetuator or perhaps friends and colleagues, minutely replaying the event, thinking about it, possibly dreaming about it and, like bereavement, working towards a time when the feelings have been ‘worked through’ or processed.  Sadly, some events are so appalling this may be very hard to do.  Sometimes court proceedings, legal delays or unsolved crimes can unduly protract this process, delaying the time when closures can be made.  Hopefully there will be an appropriate time, as with bereavement, where the issue can be dropped or ‘let go’.  The person may more easily be able to forgive at this stage, though may decide not to.  Worthington lists a range of variables which affect how easy it is to forgive, including the size of the injustice, receiving a substantial apology, seeking restitution or creating a new narrative about the transgression.

For a psychological therapist to suggest forgiveness at an early stage, before the person has processed the intense anger and hurt, may be premature.  They may need to be sensitive about the most appropriate stage to suggest ‘letting it go’.