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Forgiveness is often hard. It’s not always possible. But it can begin a process of healing

Daniel and Leila Abdallah have chosen to forgive the driver who hit and killed three of their children.

By Sophie Kesteven and Skye Docherty for Sunday Extra

As a clinical psychologist who works with couples, Everett Worthington was used to talking a lot about forgiveness.

But it wasn’t until there were two sudden deaths in the Virginia-based psychologist’s family that he began to develop a profound understanding of his life’s work firsthand.

“I had started doing research on how to help people forgive and about what forgiveness is,” he tells RN’s Sunday Extra.

Image by: STC

“Shortly after that, a couple of years later, my mother was murdered in a home invasion. So that put my theory and intervention to help others to the test.

“I had to wrestle with those questions myself.”

Professor Worthington’s brother was the first person on the scene following his mother’s murder and went on to experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

A decade later he took his own life.

“As a clinical psychologist and a brother, I felt a lot of guilt myself, then had to wrestle with self-forgiveness,” he says.

“So, I’ve kind of been around-the-horn, personally.”

‘This valley of trauma and weeping’

Sydney father Daniel Abdallah has grappled with forgiveness too.

Three of Mr Abdallah’s children and his niece were killed by a drunk driver while walking to get ice cream in February last year.

Image by: STC

Last month Daniel and his wife Leila launched ‘i4give day’ in their memory.

Image by: STC

“Throughout the journey from day one, I was thinking about my other kids and my wife,” Mr Abdallah says.

“How do I conduct myself? What do I do? Do I curl up into a ball and not accept what’s happened, which would be contagious, and my wife would follow suit and my kids. Or do I step up and carry them out of this valley of trauma and weeping.”

Mr Abdallah says he’s discovered that forgiveness is more about the forgiver than the forgiven.

“It’s about setting yourself free. So that’s why we decided to forgive.”

Types of forgiveness

In his research Professor Worthington makes the distinction between two different types of forgiveness — decisional and emotional.

“Decisional forgiveness is to make a decision not to seek revenge but to treat the person as a valued and valuable person,” he says.

Emotional forgiveness involves replacing negative unforgiving emotions like resentment, bitterness, hate, anger, and fear with positive emotions such as empathy for the person who hurt them.

Professor Worthington says it is something that happens gradually.

“First the person feels less and less negative emotion toward the offender until finally neutrality is reached,” he says.

“When it is a stranger who has hurt us, or a person that we don’t want to continue to interact with, we usually treat neutrality as full forgiveness.

“However, if this person who hurt us is a valued loved one such as a spouse, we are usually not content with stopping at neutrality but proceed on till we have a met positive feeling for the person once again.”

Health benefits

Professor Worthington says emotional forgiveness tends to have a greater benefit on people’s physical health and mental health.

He says forgiveness can help people’s physical and mental health, but that it’s that emotional forgiveness that can have the greatest benefit.

“There’s a lot of research showing that holding grudges is really bad for the physical health and letting go of those grudges and forgiving is good for the health,” he says.

“Forgiveness also lowers rumination, which is playing over negative thoughts in the late show of the mind.

“Because rumination is linked to depression, anxiety, anger, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and even psychosomatic disorders, forgiveness improves people’s mental health in many areas.”

Professor Worthington says when we forgive, we lower our stress response, so we feel better physically immediately.

“But the real benefits happen if we can maintain a forgiving attitude. That reduces blood pressure and heart rate, which lower the chance of heart disease. It also lowers our cortisol, which at high levels negatively affects every system in the body.

“Finally, forgiveness increases our heart rate variability, which is a measure of how well we are able to calm ourselves when we are upset. That makes us more resilient to stress.”

Making amends

Restorative Justice is a process whereby the people responsible for and affected by a crime are brought together for a facilitated conversation.

They talk about what happened, the impact and the potential ways forward.

Jane Bolitho, the Diana Unwin Chair in Restorative Justice at University of Victoria in Wellington, says the process is all about making amends.

“From this place comes an opportunity of a deep acknowledgement of what happened and a very personal accountability, and from this we sometimes see apology and forgiveness,” Dr Bolitho says.

“For many, it’s not necessarily about the need to apologise. For some it is, or for seeking forgiveness. It might be about information, about the last words said by their loved ones before death.

“Or that need to stand up and say, ‘This is what happened and how I feel about it’, so empowerment and accountability.

“Forgiveness is a very personal act. It’s a gift.”

The injustice gap

Mr Abdallah still feels emotions such as anger over the accident.

“The biggest thing was forgiving myself as well — that’s a hard one,” Mr Abdallah says.

“And some people, even on a spiritual sense, they don’t want to forgive God, and to understand that they’re angry, it’s not easy. You’re going against your emotions and how you should naturally feel.”

Mr Abdallah says in the end he forgave the driver for the greater good of their family.

“I think forgiveness and justice go hand-in-hand as well, and we believe in the justice system in Australia,” he says.

“We need to accept whatever outcome happens, but it’s not going to get my kids back if I see revenge. It’s not going to get my kids back if I’m angry. It’s going to do more harm to the kids that are alive than any good, so that’s where we’re at in terms of that.”

Professor Worthington says when people are hurt, they’re keeping track of an “injustice gap”.

“What happens when a person apologises or offers to make amends, or make restitution, what that does, that builds a sense of justice into our internal evaluation and it reduces our injustice gap making it easier to forgive,” he says.

“The more justice I see happening, the less sense of injustice I have and therefore … the more I’m likely to forgive.”