By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
I was immediately touched and impressed by the words of Lisa Clements (from an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN), the widow of the Colorado prisons chief who is believed to have been killed by a parolee. She said, “… we are praying for forgiveness and our ability to forgive… It’s something that we grow into and, by grace, that we receive.”
Wow. Just imagine being able to maintain a similar perspective after such a personally horrific event. Somehow she’s maintained the emotional strength to see that it’s the most constructive way to move forward after personal tragedy; as well as when tragedy directly strikes a whole community, such as 9/11. Unfortunately, there’s no switch to ‘turn on’ compassion and forgiveness. They are both hard-won experiences.
Mrs. Clements is beginning her path to forgiveness by choosing to focus on her husband’s life, rather than his killer. She is choosing to embrace her love for her husband along with experiencing her grief. This love will, no doubt, help her to move through her mourning.
But, she will still have to face her feelings toward her husband’s murderer. When she does, I’m sure she will think back to her memories of what he had said to her about this very dilemma: “I’ve heard Tom in our years together so many times talk about victims with whom he’s spoken, who describe their entire lives falling apart… because of the rage and the lack of forgiveness toward the person who harmed their loved one or took the life of their loved one. And conversely, victims with whom he’s spoken who simply said I have to let go so I can live my life. And that’s what I choose.”
I’m not sure exactly how she will find her way to forgiveness. However, for it to be true forgiveness, she will need to experience acceptance, empathy, and compassion for her husband’s killer. She’ll have to come to terms enough with her hurt and anger that she can accept him as human. By seeing him as part of a greater humanity, with all the problems and pains that the rest of us experience, she might be able to empathize with him. Finally, she can hopefully have compassion for the problematic parts of him that led him to kill her husband. This might seem unimaginable, and maybe something you wouldn’t even want to imagine doing. But ultimately, if she follows this path, she will experience freedom from the rage that so understandably could devour the rest of her life. Instead, though the hurt and pain from her husband’s death will continue, she’ll also feel inner peace and joy from her memories of her husband.
I wish Mrs. Clements (and her two daughters) love, peace, and forgiveness.
The Art of Relationships blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.