The massacre in Las Vegas is horrifying. The deadliest mass shooting in United States history has left us all stunned.
And I can’t help but wonder, What would I do if I lost a friend, a sibling, or even a child in such a senseless act of violence?
Forgiveness in such circumstances may be rare, but it happens. Like in August in Charlottesville, when Heather Heyer’s grieving father forgave his daughter’s killer. Or in 2015, when relatives of the church killings in Charleston offered forgiveness to the man who murdered their loved ones. Or in 2007, when an Amish community forgave the killer of their young children in a one-room schoolhouse.
And then there’s the case of Everett Worthington, a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University who had been doing research on forgiveness for several years when he faced the unimaginable. On New Year’s Eve 1995, two teenagers broke into Worthington’s mother’s home to burgle the place. When she woke up and confronted them, they beat her to death.
In these instances, faith compelled the survivors to forgive. But is there also a place for science in the process?
Worthington, for one, would say yes.
Science and tragedy
In the wake of the Las Vegas killings, chaplains, clergy, counselors, and others caring for families of the Las Vegas victims will be applying the well-known 5 stages of grief and loss developed by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
The professions that care for those impacted directly by death and tragedy can recite these stages by memory—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—as they provide a roadmap for caring for those in grief.
What is less known is that there are also roadmaps, thanks to the research of psychologists like Worthington, that can help one move toward forgiveness. Worthington’s REACH model—an acronym standing for Recall, Empathize, Altruism, Committing, and Holding On—is a 5-step process to forgive others. Worthington himself had to practice those steps after his mother’s brutal murder.
The science of forgiveness is a relatively new field, having only been subjected to scientific scrutiny since 1989. Since then, the research literature has exploded, led in part by the work of Worthington.
The empirical work is expansive and wide-reaching—including research that suggests there is no such thing as an unforgivable offense. Behavior that you might call proto-forgiveness can be seen in primates and other species.
Like the many virtues studied by positive psychologists, forgiveness correlates with a wide range of emotional and physical benefits, including decreases in depression and anxiety and the health benefits that come from lower stress levels. Forgiveness not only improves how we feel about the person we have forgiven, but also correlates with higher levels of volunteerism and charity.
Other forgiveness models
All of this research has led to multiple models for forgiveness. Worthington has a 6-step model when the subject of forgiveness is yourself. And fellow forgiveness researchers have their own models, such as Fred Luskin’s 9-step approach and Bob Enright’s 4 phases.
These roadmaps to forgiveness can help us move forward after tragedy. But forgiveness is never easy, and some may never be able to reach that point. Worthington’s own brother, Mike, who found their mother’s body, dealt with post-traumatic stress and depression for years. He ultimately committed suicide, possibly unable to forgive the killer.
After Las Vegas, there is a full range of emotions, including anger, grief and loss. Perhaps someday we will hear of still more examples of remarkable forgiveness, even in the face of unthinkable tragedy.
For more on forgiveness—what it is, why we should practice it, and how to cultivate it—the Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkeley has an excellent suite of resources.