This Christmas, help yourself forgive with the ‘REACH’ method

“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Dear Mark and Cathy,

My boyfriend of five years passed away suddenly six months ago. In the wake of his passing, I discovered many secrets—things that he did not tell me about. It appears that all that time we were together he was leading a double life. Whenever I think of his betrayal, I am moved to weep uncontrollably.

There are days when I am all right, but there are still moments that send me reeling. I am tired of living this way. I want to forgive him so that I can move on, but I don’t know how. I would appreciate any wisdom or guidance you might offer.

Mark and Cathy: “‘Tis the season to be jolly …” goes the song. Unfortunately, it’s hard to feel the joy of the season while holding hurts and grudges against family, friends, colleagues or acquaintances that have done us wrong. 

Unforgiveness can become the thief that steals our joy and peace. Left unchecked it can lead to bitterness, anger, and emotional and spiritual sickness.

It’s been said that “unforgiveness is like drinking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die.” But then, “to forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

Forgiveness is tough! As Mahatma Gandhi reminded us, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

When we have been wronged, we hurt, and there’s no sugarcoating it. We want justice. We want wrongs righted. We want REVENGE!  

Still, “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness,” Josh Billings wisely said.

Beyond the shopping, food, family gatherings and gift-giving, it’s important to remember what Christmas is about. We are celebrating the birth of Jesus and his arrival as the Prince of Peace, Emmanuel—God with us.

As we celebrate his first day here on earth, we are reminded about one of the last things he said during his execution. Hanging from the cross, looking down at the jeering crowd, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

The Prince of Peace knew that without forgiveness, ultimately there is no peace. He reminded his disciples, “Forgive and you will be forgiven.” After teaching “The Lord’s Prayer” during his Sermon on the Mount, he said, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

He also reminded his followers, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Related: Dealing with grief over the holidays

Step by step

One of the best ways to practice forgiveness is by using the REACH method. REACH stands for Recall, Emphasize, Altruistic gift, Commit, and Hold. It was developed by Dr. Tyler VanderWeele, co-director of the Initiative on Health, Religion, and Spirituality at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Here is a look at each step.

Recall. The first step is to recall the wrongdoing in an objective way. Based on your letter, it seems like your emotions are still quite raw. The goal is not to think of your late boyfriend in a negative light, nor to wallow in self-pity, but rather to come to a clear understanding of the wrong that was done. Visualize him and allow all the feelings that come with the wrong to rise to the surface, even the feelings that make you angry or upset. 

Empathize. Next, try to understand your boyfriend’s point of view. In this case, ask why he chose to betray you, or why he kept all these secrets from you. Do not minimize or downplay the wrong that was done. Dr. VanderWeele says, “People who attack others are sometimes themselves in a state of fear, worry, and hurt. They often don’t think when they hurt others, and they just lash out.”

Altruistic gift.  No one is perfect, and this step is about looking at your own shortcomings. Think about a time when you treated someone harshly and was forgiven. How did it make you feel? To receive forgiveness is a grace, and an altruistic gift that you can also give to others.

Commit. Make a commitment to forgive. For example, write about your decision to forgive in a journal or a letter. This will be between you and the written page. There is no need to send this letter out. “This helps with the decisional side of forgiveness,” says Dr. VanderWeele.

Hold. Finally, hold on to your forgiveness. This step can be challenging because memories of the past—in your case, the betrayal—will rise to the surface. “Forgiveness is not erasure,” says Dr. VanderWeele. “Rather, it’s about changing your reaction to those memories.”

When the bad feelings arise, remind yourself that you have forgiven and that ultimately, you want good for the offender. In your case, you are releasing your boyfriend and letting go of all the ill feelings his betrayal brought you. What’s been done has been done. You are still here with a beautiful future that awaits if you choose to make it beautiful. 

Give yourself the gift of forgiveness, too. There is much joy and peace in letting go. Like the Psalmist said, “Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” We can always make the choice to begin again, but at Christmas time, it becomes even more meaningful. “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!”

We wish you well. 

We’d love to hear from you. Please email us at [email protected].

Cathy is in private practice as a grief, loss, and transitions coach.  She is an author of four books, two of them on grief. 

Mark has been a registered nurse for 47 years and is an educator specializing in end-of-life care. He was director for training at the second largest hospice in North Carolina in the United States. —Ed.

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