Three Stories of Forgiveness

In the stories below, parents lost their children. The intensity of pain at losing one's own child is colossal — it exceeds other bereavements. It is challenging to even imagine what it means to forgive a person who took one's child away.

1) The Amish School Tragedy

Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (amazon) (256 pages, 2007) by Donald B Kraybill, Steven M Nolt and David L Weaver-Zercher. Description of the book (from back cover):

On Monday morning, October 2, 2006, a gunman entered a one-room Amish school in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. In front of twenty-five horrified pupils, thirty-two-year-old Charles Roberts ordered the boys and the teacher to leave. After tying the legs of the ten remaining girls, Roberts prepared to shoot them execution with an automatic rifle and four hundred rounds of ammunition that he brought for the task. The oldest hostage, a thirteen-year-old, begged Roberts to "shoot me first and let the little ones go." Refusing her offer, he opened fire on all of them, killing five and leaving the others critically wounded. He then shot himself as police stormed the building. His motivation? "I'm angry at God for taking my little daughter," he told the children before the massacre.

The story captured the attention of broadcast and print media in the United States and around the world. By Tuesday morning some fifty television crews had clogged the small village of Nickel Mines, staying for five days until the killer and the killed were buried. The blood was barely dry on the schoolhouse floor when Amish parents brought words of forgiveness to the family of the one who had slain their children.

The outside world was incredulous that such forgiveness could be offered so quickly for such a heinous crime. Of the hundreds of media queries that the authors received about the shooting, questions about forgiveness rose to the top. Forgiveness, in fact, eclipsed the tragic story, trumping the violence and arresting the world's attention.

Within a week of the murders, Amish forgiveness was a central theme in more than 2,400 news stories around the world. The Washington Post, The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, NBC Nightly News, CBS Morning News, Larry King Live, Fox News, Oprah, and dozens of other media outlets heralded the forgiving Amish. From the Khaleej Times (United Arab Emirates) to Australian television, international media were opining on Amish forgiveness. Three weeks after the shooting, "Amish forgiveness" had appeared in 2,900 news stories worldwide and on 534,000 web sites.

Fresh from the funerals where they had buried their own children, grieving Amish families accounted for half of the seventy-five people who attended the killer's burial. Roberts' widow was deeply moved by their presence as Amish families greeted her and her three children. The forgiveness went beyond talk and graveside presence: the Amish also supported a fund for the shooter's family.

AMISH GRACE explores the many questions this story raises about the religious beliefs and habits that led the Amish to forgive so quickly. It looks at the ties between forgiveness and membership in a cloistered communal society and ask if Amish practices parallel or diverge from other religious and secular notions of forgiveness. It will also address the matter of why forgiveness became news. "All the religions teach it," mused an observer, "but no one does it like the Amish." Regardless of the cultural seedbed that nourished this story, the surprising act of Amish forgiveness begs for a deeper exploration. How could the Amish do this? What did this act mean to them? And how might their witness prove useful to the rest of us?

More information at a book review for Amish Grace and an article: Mourning the Amish Tragedy.

2) The Story of Amy Biehl

Pages 169--170 of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want (amazon) (384 pages, 2007) by Sonja Lyubomirsky:

When I was a doctoral student at Stanford, a twenty-six-year-old woman, Amy Biehl, who had graduated with a BA in international relations and had taken a Fulbright scholarship to research women's rights and fight segregation in South Africa, was pulled from her car and stabbed to death by a mob in Guguletu township, near Cape Town. It happened two days before she was coming home to be reunited with her family and her long-time boyfriend in California. She didn't know that he was planning to ask her to marry him. It was a tragedy, one that unnerved several people close to me, especially parents of children just about her age. They tried to put themselves in the heads of her parents, an effort that was agonizing. Two years later, Amy's parents returned to the township where she was killed and met with some of the killer's families to console them.

To console them?

Four young men had been sentenced for eighteen years for Amy's murder. The Biehls came to witness their testimony in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, during which the four men expressed remorse and pleaded for amnesty. The Biehls supported their release. They were able to bury their anger, hurt, and hatred.

Amy's father died shortly after that trip, but Amy's mother returned to South Africa yet again, this time to forgive one of the four killers, a man named Ntobeko Peni. He saw himself as a young freedom fighter, growing up poor and segregated in South Africa's townships, taught from childhood that whites were the enemy. But she didn't just forgive him. She gave him a job, and with a job, a future. He works as a guide and peer educator for HIV / AIDS awareness at the Amy Biehl Foundation, which has programs in townships outside Cape Town. He also travels the world with Amy's mother to tell their story of forgiveness and reconciliation. Amy's mother says that Ntobeko is part of her family now.

This might appear at first glance as an extreme example, and few of us would aspire to hold the reservoir of forgiveness that Amy's mother seems to have. But research suggests that we can learn from her.

You may learn more about the Amy Biehl Foundation (google search).

3) Grief: From Anger to Acceptance

Pages 26--28 of On Grief and Grieving (amazon) (256 pages, 2005) by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler (the excerpt is from the first chapter which explains five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance):

Alan, seventeen years old, was thrilled to go to the basketball championship that was being held downtown in the sports arena. After the game, in the parking lot, Alan walked ten feet to his car and was randomly shot and killed by a gang member.

His father, Keith, and his mother, Donna, could not understand why their son was killed. They were filled with anger as they spent their days and nights trying to raise their other kids, go to work, and follow the all-consuming ongoing investigation into the killing.

A close couple, friends of Keith and Donna's, became concerned because they were not available to get together for meals or anything else. One evening the couple dropped in out of concern and said to Keith and Donna, "You have to accept this loss. Your son is gone and none of this is going to bring him back. Haven't you heard about the five stages? You'e done all the others. All you need now is acceptance."

Keith got angry with his friend and sked, "What part of Alan's death don't you think I accept? At his grave today, I cried like a baby. If I didn't accept it, would I go to his grave? We're not setting a place for him at the dinner table tonight. We live in reality, his room is empty every night. How much more acceptance can we feel?"

The friend looked down and said, "I just hate to see you in so much pain."

Keith replied, "Believe me, I hate to be in so much pain."

We have found that this is not unusual for people like Keith and Donna's friends to misunderstand the stages. Acceptance is not about liking a situation. It is about acknowledging all that has been lost and learning to live with that loss. It would be too soon for Keith to be able to accept the situation. He can acknowledge the reality of the loss, but it would be unrealistic to think he should have found some peace with it by then.

After closing arguments in the murder case, it took the jury only five hours to come back with a guilty verdict. The gang member who killed Alan was sentenced to life in prison, and Keith and Donna went back to their own lives.

Keith actually had a new loss to deal with, which was the emptiness he now felt without the trial to consume his time. It made the absence of his son's loss even louder.

We think it is important for people to understand that gradually, in your own time, you can begin to find some peace with what has happened. In situations such as murder, it is vital to understand we have a legal system, not necessarily a justice system. For some, the only justice would be to have their loved one back. Acceptance is a process that we experience, not a final stage with an end point.

For Keith, no one else could know how much acceptance he was capable of or how time would affect his process. After five years, Keith felt he had found as much acceptance as was possible. Then he was notified that the shooter was up for his parole hearing. Keith felt all his hard-earned acceptance drain out of him. By the time of the hearing he was once again filled with anger. The proceedings were brief and parole was denied. Keith was struck by how quickly it happened and by the tears of the shooter's father. For the first time, Keith realized that there were victims on both ends of the gun.

Keith walked over to him and shook his hand. At that moment, something happened for Keith as his anger was replaced by a curiosity. He wanted to know what this other father's life was like and what led him to the same place. Over the next few years, the two men formed an alliance to help gang members stop the violence and find their place in the world. They went from school to school in the inner city with their story.

Keith's accptance was a journey that was deeper than he ever expected. And it happened over many years, not many months or days. Not evedryone will or can fully embrace those who have hurt us, as Keith did, but ther is always a struggle that leads us to our own personal and unique acceptance.

Further Reading

Heart of Darkness: Poignant story of how Khamisa and Felix joined hands together after a shooting.

Forgiveness Workshop: A Report — This article summarizes what I learnt at a one-day workshop on forgiveness by Fred Luskin and Rick Hanson on 15 August 2009.

Forgiveness Project in UK: The Forgiveness Project is a UK-based charitable organization which explores forgiveness, reconciliation and conflict resolution. You may read real life forgiveness stories at their website, many of which pertain to IRA-related violence.

Wikipedia: Forgiveness.