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Can it do any good to ask someone forgiveness or forgive them after they’ve died?


Ground Picture / Shutterstock

Marzena Devoud - published on 04/06/23

"Taking the step of forgiving or asking for forgiveness can open the way for the deceased to eternal life."

It was a cold morning in February. Relatives, co-workers, and many friends filled a small Parisian church for a last “goodbye” to Benoît, 58 years old, who had died of cancer. He had been a brilliant lawyer, and after the shock of the diagnosis he had fought the disease, although he knew intuitively that he didn’t have much time left to live.

Together with his wife Astrid and their three sons, he prepared for the inevitable, both humanly and spiritually. Indeed, every detail of the funeral Mass that he had carefully prepared seemed to reflect Benoît’s personal faith. Songs, readings, shared prayers … “It was a way to witness his faith and his way of expressing his expectation of Heaven,” Astrid tells Aleteia

The grace of forgiveness

At the beginning of the Mass, a monk who had been close to the deceased revealed some of his last conversations. One of the things he had said was, “I pray for the grace of forgiveness.” One might ask why the grace of forgiveness was so important to Benoît. And why did the priest who celebrated the Mass ask him to accept God’s mercy for all that had remained in silence, for all that had remained in his heart, for all the things he had not known how to place before God?

“At the moment of death, there are sometimes unspoken pains and sufferings that arise, even if they are not expressed,” explained the priest in his homily. “So, if you have something to forgive the deceased, or something to ask forgiveness for, this is the moment to do it to let him go in peace. Say, ‘I forgive you. I let you go in peace.’ If, on the other hand, you want to ask for forgiveness, do it in your heart now. Say, ‘I ask for your forgiveness.’ Then he can go in peace.”

Marianne, one of Benoît’s friends, responded to this invitation. “I was very angry at myself for not having been present enough with him in his last months of life. My fear of death and also my fear of not being able to find the right words prevented me from going to see him, even though I prayed a lot for him from a distance,” she confessed to Aleteia. “So I wanted to ask my friend for forgiveness, in silence, just in my heart. At the end of the Mass, I felt at peace. There was an inner peace and spiritual communion with Benoît. It was as if our friendship became more beautiful. It was wonderful.”

Actually, it wasn’t just beautiful. It was divine. For taking the step of forgiving or asking for forgiveness opens the way for the deceased to eternal life. Seeking reconciliation means allowing yourself to already have one foot in eternity where there is no more jealousy, rivalry, injustice, or calculation.

“When someone passes to the next life, all that is human is penetrated by the divine. When Benoît looked at his family and friends from eternity, he saw all of life in truth and humility. So yes, if you need to ask someone for forgiveness, or if you need to forgive someone, this is the time to do it, to be at peace and to let the deceased go in peace,” explains Fr. Paul Habsburg of Our Lady of Auteuil Parish in Paris.

Love beyond death

Asking for forgiveness is an incredible gift that our faith allows us to make, as Benedict XVI explains in Spe salvi, his second encyclical on Christian hope, published on November 30, 2007:

The souls of the departed can, however, receive “solace and refreshment” through the Eucharist, prayer and almsgiving. The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? (Spe salvi, 48)

But beware, forgiveness is not an emotion. Forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a decision to want the good of a person, whether living or dead. 

Fr. Paul Denizot, rector of the shrine of Montligeon (in northwestern France), which is dedicated to prayer for the souls in purgatory, elaborated on the meaning of forgiveness while speaking to Aleteia.

“It is a good that touches the person completely, a good that will allow him or her to enter into God’s forgiveness. Forgiving the deceased does not mean forgetting or accepting an injustice. Forgiving means allowing them to reach purgatory, which is the place of justice in its divine dimension. It is in the soul of the deceased that justice is done. Forgiving the deceased makes them grow and helps them in their purification,” he explains. 

“Thank you” and “I’m sorry”

Fr. Denizot explains that sometimes it takes time to take this step. “It makes me think of a father whose two daughters were killed during the attacks at the Bataclan. He told me that he couldn’t forgive even though he didn’t want to (and couldn’t) live with the feeling of hatred. In reality,” he continued, “his initial desire to succeed one day in forgiving is already forgiveness.”

At the Montligeon Shrine, visitors can write a postcard to a deceased person to say thank you and ask forgiveness. They can simply fill it out and drop it in the mailbox located to the right of the statue of Our Lady Liberator. Through her intercession, people can ask God to make known the thanks or the request for forgiveness addressed to the deceased.

For example, one woman in her card thanked her father for having given her the gift of life and forgave him for having abused her. “Her words moved me and, at the same time, they allowed me to see the power of forgiveness and love when it touches salvation and makes divine love visible,” concludes Fr. Denizot.

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