I believe when bad things happen we have a moral responsibility, simply because we walk this earth together, to roll up our sleeves and clean up. Sometimes we may find ourselves working alongside the very person that caused the harm. When this occurs, there is a powerful opportunity for transformation.
My life was ripped apart on New Year's Eve in 1997. Bob McIntosh, my husband of nine years, left our dinner table to check on the home of vacationing neighbors after we became aware their teenage son was having a party. Bob never came home. He walked into a mob of 200 drunk and out-of-control young people. A punch from an angry youth put Bob on the floor unconscious. Kicks to his head delivered by a 20-year-old named Ryan caused a fatal brain hemorrhage. I was left widowed with 4-year-old twins.
As the story made headlines, I became increasingly aware I was not feeling the anger and vengeance people expected of me. I did not want my life or the lives of my children to be defined by Bob's senseless death. Refusing to be a victim shrouded in hatred and negativity, I chose instead to be inspired by the full and engaged way Bob lived. We moved forward in a positive way and built a new life.
It took five years and an undercover investigation before an arrest was made. I stunned police by asking to meet Ryan face-to-face. I did not expect that the traditional justice system would give me a voice or the healing I needed. I wanted to look Ryan in the eye, tell him what Bob's death had been like for me and for my family, and how hard we had worked to rebuild our lives. I challenged Ryan to do the same, and promised I would stand by him if he stepped up and accepted responsibility for his actions.
Through a restorative justice reconciliation process, I met again with Ryan. My fear was gut-wrenching but humanity surfaced on so many levels. Ryan was someone's son, bullied as a child. He had fallen into a spiral of substance use and violence in a twisted effort to find identity. Our lives were entwined whether we liked it or not—we connected through our brokenness.
I listened to the whispers of my heart and was able to forgive Ryan. Forgiveness was not a cop-out, not soft and most definitely not about forgetting. Forgiveness gave me a voice, an opportunity to choose a legacy of healing and hope. I began speaking to youth and their parents about bullying, social responsibility around alcohol and other drugs, about violence and about moving forward after unspeakable loss.
Ryan and I now stand together speaking to audiences in schools, community halls and prisons. Forgiveness has been transformational—it ended the downward spiral of Ryan's life and set me free. Forgiveness gave me a life filled with grace and possibility, and for that I am deeply grateful.