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Alumni Essays

Reflections on Forgiveness

Sara C. HullSara C. Hull

Part I

I grew up observing the annual tradition of Yom Kippur with my family, casting a year’s worth of sins in the form of breadcrumbs into a local river, fasting for a day, asking for an annual dose of divine forgiveness so that I might be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year.  These rituals made me feel good about myself, but I accepted them with some complacency, never really considering what forgiveness meant, to whom and by whom it could be given, and under what circumstances. 

It was not until nearly 20 years later that I was prompted to think hard about the concept of forgiveness – specifically, when I received a handwritten letter from the mother of the 24-year old man who killed my father.  The young man had run through a stop sign while driving intoxicated.  The “accident” had occurred on the evening before I was scheduled to walk with my classmates for my PhD diploma.

In her letter, the young man’s mother called upon me and the other members of my immediate family to forgive her son for what he had done.  The letter arrived at a time when we were all still early in our process of grieving, still struggling to make sense and come to terms with the horror of what had happened.  It came at a time after the driver had acknowledged his responsibility for his actions to law enforcement agents, but before he was sentenced to prison as punishment for his actions.

My mother and my brothers were not willing to forgive him.  They had suffered a terrible, irreversible loss because of this young man’s reckless actions and were struggling to figure out how to go on with their lives.  They felt that they owed nothing to this man, nor to his mother.  I understood and respected their position.

To my surprise, however, I had a different response to the letter.  It made me realize that I was somewhat open to better understanding the man who killed my father.  I thought it was brave of his mother even to write the letter at all.  I imagined her sitting down many times, perhaps in tears and certainly in anguish, searching for the right words to say to us.  Her letter acknowledged our loss while also helping me to understand her perspective and her pain – which, although very different than ours, was valid in its own right. I understood that she felt responsible for her son and his actions, and that she loved him, and that he was part of a family and a context that I hadn’t yet acknowledged in my own thoughts.

But forgive?  I could not even begin to imagine how forgiveness was applicable to my situation.  What would it mean for me to forgive him?  To absolve him of responsibility for his actions?  To acknowledge that what he did was unintentional and therefore “okay,” or at least, not as bad somehow?  To let go of my anger?  I had neither the ability nor the desire to do any of these things.  I certainly was in no position to forgive him by offering him a page in the book of life, or a place in heaven, or even a place in my heart.  I was not interested in welcoming him any further into my life than he had already stepped, uninvited.  There were words to describe a variety of responses that were available to me – even “understanding” and “empathy” – but these were quite distinct from any possible conception of “forgiveness” that I could imagine.

I have a vivid recollection of everything that happened in the courtroom on the day of the sentencing.  The young man who killed my father offered my family words of apology and regret, and I believed him.  I think he understood the gravity of his actions and the irreversible damage they had caused.

I drove that point home further in my own comments at the sentencing when I spoke of the magnitude of my family’s loss as I stood with my newborn son in my arms – my father’s first grandchild, whom he would never get to meet.  The judge offered me a seat, twice, but I insisted that I would stand.  It was important to me that everyone be able to see my son as I spoke.  I also expressed gratitude for the young man’s apology and acknowledged his mother’s letter.  And then – although I’m still not sure it was a good idea – I felt the need to explain to the judge that I didn’t fully understand the meaning of forgiveness, and that I could not forgive because I did not think forgiveness – whatever it was – was mine to give in this situation. 

The judge’s response was jarringly disappointing to me.  After a few general, seemingly scripted comments, he looked me in the eye, shrugged, and said: “As for forgiveness, I guess that’s something that’s between you and your god or your religious convictions.”

I had expected more from him.  I was hoping for an authoritative judicial read on the matter.  But he had said nothing at all, at least nothing that was useful to me.  If forgiveness had something to do with one’s god or religious beliefs, would it not be between the young man who killed my father and his god or religion?

As my family was leaving the courtroom that day, I had an impulse to turn back and walk over to the young man’s mother.  I needed to tell her that I was very sorry for the pain that I knew her family was also suffering.  I had just watched her wave good-bye to her son as he was being taken away for a 4-year prison term.  I was now a mother, too.  I had only just started to get the words out when she reached out her arms, and we hugged.  She said nothing.  We hugged and cried together for a quiet moment, while the members of her family bowed their heads silently around us, and then I turned and left the courtroom without ever looking back.

I am certain that this simple, quiet act was one of the most important steps in my mourning and healing process. I am equally certain that it had nothing whatsoever to do with forgiveness, but something else entirely.

Part II

“He’s an immigrant, isn’t he?” asked one of the women from the neighborhood who had come to sit shiva with my family in the days immediately following my father’s death.

“Excuse me?” I asked, disoriented by the randomness of the question.

“Or maybe his parents were the immigrants?”

“Whose parents?”

“I heard that his father’s name is Mohammed.”

Oh.  She was talking about the man who killed my father.  One of the local newspaper articles had mentioned his father’s name.

“Why do you bring that up?” I asked.

“Oh, no reason, I’m just saying.”

At that point, she changed the topic and tried to offer me something to eat. 

A bit later, another yenta (as my father would have called her) from the neighborhood tried to console me in a similar manner:

“It’s so random.  So random that your father was in his car at that place at that time.  You have to wonder if this still would have happened if something had been just a little different….if your father had stopped at one more store before driving home, if they had never come to this country…”

“If who had never come to this country?”  At this point I knew exactly what she meant; I just could not believe that she was saying it to me the day after my father’s funeral, as if her words somehow would comfort me. 

What these two women meant, and what others would add to the racist chorus in the months and years following my father’s death, is the following:

“We’ve noticed that the other driver has darker skin and a Muslim-sounding name, and perhaps if he and his family – and others like them – were not allowed to be in the United States, your father’s death and terrible things like it would never have happened.”

It got even worse after 9/11.  After 9/11, the story morphed into my father being killed by a terrorist, a potential terrorist, someone who might as well have been a terrorist.   Little off-handed comments, completely inaccurate and completely beside the point.  More recently, the manner of his death has morphed into a platform to speak out against illegal immigration, retrofitted to parallel other recent stories in the media about undocumented immigrants – “illegals” – who tragically kill nuns while driving drunk. (1) 

There is a fantasy version of this story, one in which I cry out at the top of my lungs to insist that my father’s death not be twisted and misunderstood in this way.  My father did not hold such views, and it is such an insult to his memory and the good man that he was for his story to be hijacked in this way.  My father’s death was both terrible and preventable, but it had absolutely nothing to do with terrorism or immigration.  In my fantasy, I have figured out a way to stand up to prevent a travesty from coming out of our tragedy.

However, that is not yet the version of the story that I can tell.  My story is less dramatic, one in which the process of discovering intolerance and racism and ignorance among those closest to me – my own friends and family, the social network that has played a role in the person I have become – helped me to appreciate how forgiveness might indeed have a role to play in my life.

I felt disappointed, even betrayed by people that I thought I knew.  I had lost more than my father.  I had also lost some measure of respect for people I had long counted on.  I couldn’t understand how, despite growing up in the same reasonably diverse communities and social environments, they had come to hold such ugly views.  It certainly was not all of them, of course, but it was many more than I had ever realized.

Yet at the same time, we also saw a great deal of generosity at this time from those friends and family who were closest to me and even from those I didn’t know as well.  Many pitched in to help us clean up and settle matters related to the old house up in New Jersey, taking care of us at a very vulnerable, difficult time.  People really stepped up, doing things that required much of their time and that were genuinely helpful to us.  This was still my family and my community – people who were good to me, who cared for me – and it turned out that I still very much cared for them.  We had a shared history, and we now also shared the pain of an excruciating loss.

It was bad enough that I had lost my father.  I was not prepared to turn my back on those whom I loved and who loved me back, those with whom I had enduring relationships, even if it turned out that they were not quite the people I had thought them to be.  We still needed each other.  I cannot excuse racism, but I can understand that we all were trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy, grasping for explanations and a focus for our anger and confusion.  It is a coping mechanism to seek someone or something to blame, although terribly unfortunate that this need will cause some to look beyond what the facts warrant.

Of course, I was also naïve to think that racism and intolerance were not as prevalent as they actually are.  The unfortunate but eye-opening nature of some of the responses to my father’s death provided an opportunity for me to transform myself, to set aside my own naïve complacency, perhaps to stand up and become more involved in the political process – and, closer to home, to figure out how to explain to my friends and family why their comments are not appreciated and how they are wrong and damaging.  However, this does not require me to walk away from my friends and family, nor do I want to do that.  I do not want to lose anyone else as a result of my father’s death.

So perhaps this is what forgiveness is about: seeing a person for more than his or her hurtful actions, and choosing to continue a valued relationship, even in the face of significant disagreement or disappointment.  Perhaps there is something useful to be gleaned from this concept of “forgiveness,” after all.

(1) Vendantam S. DHS withholds probe into Prince William drunk driver who killed nun. Washington Post, October 12, 2010, (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/12/AR2010101203481.html?sid=ST2010112104252, accessed November 7, 2012).

Sara Chandros Hull earned her PhD from the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in 1999.

 

Comments

  • Jill Cermele

    United States 02/26/2013 04:44:29 PM

    Such a painful and important story, and so painfully, and beautifully, told.

  • Matt Beams

    NJ 02/27/2013 09:24:16 PM

    Sara, thank you for sharing this. It gives me insight into how to think about forgiveness in my own life.

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