I read the memoir “Let It Go: A True Story of Tragedy and Forgiveness,” by Chris Williams, a former LDS bishop in Salt Lake City, (here) who in 2007, lost his wife, two children and unborn child, when a drunken driver, age 17, slammed into the family car. Besides Williams, his young son, Sam, survived. An older son was not in the car.
This is a book that will release tears. And I can empathize with Williams’ initial feelings. (I witnessed my son’s death, although it was not violent or as cruel as what Williams endured) He writes: “I became aware of a terrible, ‘other wordly’ sound that was growing louder and louder … this sound was coming … not from my throat, but from deep inside my body. I was the one making that horrific sound — that sound of excruciating anguish and pain, of a body and spirit being crushed.”
Grief’s tough, especially when it transpires due to a seemingly senseless, careless or criminal act. But, and this is important, grief can curdle and turn bad if it doesn’t progress beyond the initial “horrific sound,” the depression of losing someone we love. In short, grief can make us stronger and a better person, or it can make us weaker, and even destroy us.
Immediately after the accident, Williams expressed forgiveness to the 17-year-old boy who had killed members of his family. He views forgiveness as a commandment, rather than a choice. He writes: “If I didn’t extend mercy without reservation, it would be difficult to have it extended to me, and I could be fully exposed to the punishment of that greater sin of assigning a power to myself that is not mine, resisting and perhaps even fighting the Savior’s mercy and heading for a truly miserable state of suffering.”
This reminds of the recent example of the Iranian mother, Samerah Alinejad, who was offered the opportunity, her right in areas of Iran, to kick the chair out from under her son’s murderer and watch him hang for his crime.
By her own admission, she had waited seven years to execute her son’s killer. However, when the moment arrived, she slipped the noose over his head, pardoning him. It was an admirable act of public mercy.
Neither the killer of Williams’ family members or the murderer of Alinejad’s son escaped legal consequences for what they did. But their accounts underscore another theme in “Let It Go,” which is that every human on earth is of equal worth to our creator, and that our creator loves a sinner as much as the most righteous individual on earth.
That’s why Williams becomes friends with the teen who killed his family members, Cameron White, reaches out to White’s family, and assists the young man in his rehabilitation. He regards, correctly, God’s love toward him, White, and all persons of the earth to be equal.
Another theme of Williams’ experience is that that forgiveness, mercy and service to other, is crucial to prevent unhappiness, cruelty, and grief from poisoning our own existence. He writes: “… there are those who suffer cruelties at the hands of others. … And yet He who knows that these and so many other kinds of tragedies would occur commanded us to combat them with love. He knows that when we’re hurt, we’re vulnerable and thus susceptible to grudges, hidden wedges, and wounds, all of which, if left unchecked, could fester into anger, retribution, vilification, even hatred.”
There is a passage in “Let It Go,” in which Williams takes his badly injured son, Sam, home from the hospital. At home, he tucks the boy in his bed and leaves him to sleep. Returning later, he is surprised to find the young boy awake. The boy looks at his father and asks, “Where’s mom?” This is after the funeral, that the boy missed due to his injuries. The boy accepts his father’s explanation silently, but spends subsequent nights crying for his mother. Having a very young person deal with death and their own grief is hard. I recall our daughter, not yet 3, being confused and scared after her baby brother died. For a year my wife and I took turns sleeping with her.
As mentioned, Williams’ memoir is heavy on religious teachings, but the central lesson is that anger, revenge, bitterness, and a failure to offer forgiveness can twist us into something small and damaged, and that’s a double-tragedy if we have suffered at the hands of another.
Williams, in despair, “hears” his late wife saying “buck up!” a term she used in their marriage. It was a reminder to him that he had others, including two sons, who needed him more than his own despair did. So he “bucked up,” and was able to both control his grief and serve others, which is the most direct creed of his faith.
With the assistance of the LDS Church, a video was filmed of Williams’ story that included a scene of him meeting with White. It can be viewed here.