Chris & Heather hosted our couple’s small group for two years. Their daughter Emily was tragically killed in an automobile accident. It may have been the most difficult funeral I’ve ever officiated. Afterwards, Heather began an unexpected forgiveness journey. Today, she shares her journey as only Heather can. Full-on honesty.
Two years ago I never gave much thought about forgiveness. It just wasn’t that important to me… it was easier to stay mad and go on about my business… I was stubborn and it didn’t seem to bother me in the least. I know that statement probably made a few eyebrows raise and may have even gotten a grumble out of some people. No one is perfect and I was no exception… I’m still no exception. Forgiveness can sometimes seem so small that it’s hardly worth bothering with or it can seem so big that it doesn’t really apply to your situation. I tend to think it’s whichever suits us at the time just as long as we can avoid the whole thing all together. But sometimes… sometimes, you can’t run away and you can’t justify not dealing with it… it’s too big to sweep under the rug or hide in the closet.
On June 7, 2014… I sat on the porch of my husband’s grandfather’s house talking with our oldest daughter Emily. She was 22 at the time and embodied the free-spirit wild child that caused us many sleepless nights and had us shaking our heads many other times… but she always, always made us laugh. Like most other girls as she was growing up, there was no shortage of drama. When she would come home with hurt feelings or mad because “so-and-so did this to me”, “so-and-so said this” or whatever the case was, I would instantly tell her to stay away and don’t talk to them. So… a few days later when she would come home after school with said person in tow, I never understood… I mean, aren’t WE still mad at them?!?! None of this changed as she got older and when I would ask her how she could just look the other way when someone hurt or wronged her, she would simply say “it’s easier than staying mad.” It aggravated me to no end and if I’m being completely honest, I thought of it as a sign of weakness… or at least I used to.
I didn’t know that when she drove off that afternoon, it would be the last time I would see her. We texted a few times that evening and within a few minutes of my last text, she was gone. She had left the safety of that porch and went to the river in a neighboring town to go swimming with her boyfriend Michael and another couple. I’m not sure why, but when they headed back, she rode in the passenger side of the other car and not in her boyfriend’s car. The two guys started racing back to town, Michael’s car lost control and while the car Emily was in swerved to miss it, they too lost control and crossed into oncoming traffic. The semi hit the passenger side and in an instant, she was gone. When her boyfriend’s car came to a stop, he ran away and wasn’t found by the Sheriff’s Dept for 4 hours. And because of that, it was 4 hours before we were notified of the accident and her death, because they had no way to ID her.
And so began a different life. I don’t know how it’s possible to remain one single body yet feel like you’ve been divided into 3 or 4 and each one of those going down a different road, embarking on its own journey. One of those journeys has been forgiveness… it has been the hardest and has been met with the most resistance. I’ve been through a rollercoaster of emotions when it comes to Michael and it started well before the accident. After several months into their relationship, I wasn’t a fan. It wasn’t healthy… in fact it was volatile. I couldn’t understand how two people could bring out the best and the worst in each other, but somehow they managed to do that. I think that I was his first phone call after they picked him up and booked him that night. It’s not a conversation that I remember too well but I do remember that I didn’t know any of the specifics at that time. The second phone call that came a few hours later, I had more information… and I was mad.
We were never able to see Emily again… we were just left with having to take someone’s word that it in fact, was her. Emily had secured her place in Heaven many years before this would happen and I knew where she was, I knew that she would never know pain or sadness and that she could never be hurt again. I clung to my faith the week between the wreck and her funeral, and it was the ONLY thing that got me through. My faith never faltered and I never stopped believing even when I got to the “angry with God” point… which I won’t lie, lasted a long time. I was angry with everyone… this was NOT supposed to happen to us… this is what happens to OTHER people. Any hint of forgiveness was gone. And thus began a vicious cycle that lasted for well over a year.
I remember the first time during all of this when I was met head on with what I thought was the choice of “forgiving” Michael. We sat in the office of the District Attorney and had to re-hash everything… to decide how we wanted to proceed. A plea agreement was presented, we accepted it and that was that. “That was that”… to say that I was naïve would be an understatement. It was probably my first lesson showing me that I knew nothing about what forgiveness really was. Just because we didn’t push things and try and get the harshest punishment there was, didn’t mean I had forgiven… but I thought it did at the time. But then Thanksgiving came and she was still gone, then Christmas and then her birthday. And with everything that came and went with her not there with us, the anger and resentment grew. Just as it seemed to subside a little, something would happen and once again the fire would be stoked. When you combine grief, anger and guilt… guilt because of the wrongs you can’t right and for not being able to protect your child… it creates a storm that will leave you exhausted, bitter and destructive.
There was probably close to a year that I didn’t have any contact with Michael. I think that was probably good for both of us. But in December of 2015, he contacted me via Facebook and let me know that he would be released and back in town the following month on January 11. Suddenly, I didn’t know what to do… I didn’t know how to feel. I was tired… tired of being angry then okay… tired of rehashing everything… tired of trying to figure out how I felt. I stopped praying the day after Emily’s funeral… I remember that moment with complete clarity… but I started again… eventually. At first it was awkward, I didn’t know what to say and truthfully, it didn’t seem sincere. So my path that led me back to praying began with me opening up to God with how and why I was so angry at Him… and eventually I found my way back. I had been praying for God to show me how I needed to feel, even though I knew exactly how God would want me to feel. Maybe this was an exception… I mean, it seemed reasonable to justify why I should be angry and not forgive.
I think it was a day or two after he got back to town that I reached out and asked him if he would like to go to the cemetery with me. He did. I had been feverishly praying about how to handle my emotions and how to handle this day, should it come about. On my way to pick him up, it wasn’t God that I talked to… it was Emily. Looking back, I know that God was giving me the answer as to how I should feel but I wasn’t as open to it as I thought. I was looking for the answer I wanted… not the one I needed. On my way over there, I begged and pleaded with Emily to somehow let me know how she wanted me to feel. If she wanted me to be mad, then I would be mad. I had so much that I wanted to say to him, so many questions… so many accusations… so many terrible things I wanted to say…
When he walked around the corner something happened… to me… I felt it and I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t angry, I didn’t hate him and I didn’t remember one thing that I had prepared myself to say. I couldn’t have been mad if I had tried and honestly, I was pretty mad about that. What I saw when he walked around that corner, was the person that Emily loved, she loved the good and the bad even though I never understood it. I saw a 21-year-old who will have to live the rest of his life knowing that he played a part in the death of his girlfriend and his best friend… I saw someone who looked lost and who was going to have to find their place in this world as a different person. We stopped and he bought flowers then off we went to the cemetery. It was the first time he had been able to go and I guess that I was needing to see a certain reaction… and I did… it was remorse, it was hurt and it was regret. As we sat out there and talked, I could almost feel myself forgiving him. It was an emotional visit and when I dropped him off and drove away, I knew that was not the end.
I have journaled my way through my grief and other emotions over the last year and a half and wanted to share my view of forgiveness as well. A few days after our visit to the cemetery, I posted this… In the last year and a half, I’ve had to work a lot on forgiveness. It’s not an easy thing to do because we always feel justified in the reason we can’t or won’t forgive a person. The one thing I know is that forgiving someone doesn’t change what happened… but neither does not forgiving them. Forgiving does not make you weak, it does not make you lesser of a person. It does not make you stupid or crazy. If fact, it makes you the opposite of all those things. Staying angry will slowly eat you alive and you won’t even realize it. What is the hardest part? It is knowing you will have to defend yourself and argue your point on why you forgave someone. It’s knowing that relationships and friendships will end or forever be changed. Why do I choose to forgive? It’s because I needed to… it was good for me and good for him… it’s what we are supposed to do… it’s because it makes me feel better emotionally, mentally and physically… it’s because we all need to be forgiven by someone for something and it’s got to start somewhere.
Over the next month or so, I would take him to the cemetery when he wanted to go. I also would pick him up on Tuesday’s, go eat dinner and then drop him off at one of his groups he had to go to. I had… and I have, forgiven him. And in doing so, it changed me. My heart was no longer as heavy and I was able to deal with some aspects of my grief that until that point, I felt, were slowly killing me. Do I think that we will be a part of each other’s life for years to come? I don’t know… but probably not. We will always share something and have one thing in common… we loved a beautiful, amazing girl who changed our lives. But, I know that his life will continue… I know that one day he will find someone, fall in love and maybe even have kids. And when that happens, I will be okay. It’s what I would have wanted for her… if she still had the chance.