Forgiveness

This is the most difficult post I have written. August 16th  is the 7-year anniversary of my family’s death. Although I have shared about my loss and the tragic events that took place, I have been relatively private regarding the legal aspect of this journey. However, recent events have compelled me to speak up and try to raise public awareness regarding my family’s experience with the criminal justice system. Something is amiss and needs to be brought to light. “If you see something, say something”. We are regularly reminded that we should speak up when something does not seem right. I have learned that ignoring what we see and hear can lead to destruction.

I have four goals in sharing my story:

  1. I hope to raise community awareness that my brother is being recommended for outpatient treatment and may be gaining access to the public.
  2. I hope that my and the public’s concern will cause decision makers in this process to pause and to think more deeply about the implications of their decisions.
  3. I hope my experience will help families of victims (and the general public) understand that, in New Jersey, even when there is no doubt that an individual committed the crime, murder charges can be dismissed forever.
  4. Most importantly, I hope that my story will testify to God’s power to bring healing to our brokenness, giving peace, joy, and hope, even in the direst of circumstances.

By God’s grace, I can share this part of my story because of the emotional healing that has taken place in my life over the past 7 years. I can share because God has walked with me, each step of the way, and led me to a place of forgiveness. In allowing God to work in me and transform me, He gave me the strength and the courage to forgive my brother for the harm he caused me when he murdered my daughter and our parents. It is in that same strength and courage that I am speaking up and calling attention to my experience with the criminal justice system.

Learning to love and forgive has been a long and complicated journey for me. From day one, I knew that it was what Christ called me to do as His follower. That was the first step: understanding that, as a Christian, loving and forgiving my brother, and even my enemies, was not optional. I did not know how I could do it but my heart’s disposition had to align with God’s Word. Therefore, very early on I decided that I wanted to forgive my brother. I wanted to honor God in my circumstances. I knew that I could trust God to help me do that, however, I also knew that I needed to do my part. I was angry but I relied on God’s Word and prayer to resist the urge to hate my brother. I resisted the urge to allow bitterness to take root in my heart. There were many difficult days. Days where the feeling of absolute helplessness would turn to rage. Repeatedly, I had to remind myself of the Gospel. Repeatedly, I prayed that God would help me learn to forgive.

As time went by my prayers started to change. As my understanding of the Gospel and Christ’s sacrifice deepened, forgiveness became possible. Instead of “God help me to forgive”, I started to pray, “Father, what does forgiveness look like?” I confessed how limited I was, and how complicated and overwhelming these circumstances felt. God continued to heal me and transform my heart. I literally felt a greater capacity to love and to forgive. I continued to pray for my brother. I continued to pray for myself. I continued to seek God’s face and to ask Him to “show me what forgiveness looks like in my situation”. God was merciful each step of the way. The community of believers around me listened to me and encouraged me.

God’s presence and His provision were tangible to me; this gave me courage and strength. On April 15, 2016, I felt God’s presence in a powerful way. It was my mom’s birthday and my heart was heavy. I missed her so much. As I took my pain to the Lord in prayer, my brother came to mind and I wept. Somehow, for the first time, I saw my brother through my mother’s eyes, and then through God’s eyes. My heart broke for him and I was overwhelmed by love and compassion. Once again, something deep in my heart had changed. Once again, my prayer changed: “Father, I love my brother, help me to know what love looks like in this situation”. This has been my prayer since.

So much has happened in the last two years. The charges against my brother were dismissed in March 2017. Defense expert witnesses testified that he had still not regained competency and that it was not likely that he would regain competency in the “foreseeable future”. However, his treating psychiatrist testified that he had regained competency and that he was malingering. She had been reporting that he was competent and that he was faking his symptoms as early as 2014. Nonetheless, the judge ruled that my brother was unfit for trial and that he would probably never be fit. The judge dismissed the charges with prejudice (meaning that it is dismissed permanently and cannot be brought back to court). The same judge also found that my brother was a danger to himself and to others, and ordered that he be civilly committed. My family and I still cannot understand how this was possible. Everyone we have spoken to are dumbfounded by the outcome.

Since then, my brother has gained internet access. He created a Facebook account and started requesting family and friends. He reactivated his old Facebook account  and regained access to the profiles of everyone he was friends with before he committed the murders. Six weeks ago, I received a call from the prosecutor’s office. It turned out that my brother’s commitment was up for review and the hospital was recommending outpatient treatment. Once again, we were shocked. We still cannot believe it. After almost 6 years of treatment, my brother was found to be homicidal and dangerous to himself and others. Court transcripts state that on August 2016 the defense’s expert witness had an interaction with my brother that he described as a “chilling experience”. The psychiatrist stated that he was actively psychotic and homicidal. He quoted my brother saying, “If I don’t kill someone I’ll go to state prison and fifty years from now you’ll be here and asking me the same things”. Now, less than a year since the charges were permanently dismissed and he was found to be dangerous, he was being recommended for outpatient treatment. How is this possible?

As you can see, loving and forgiving my brother continues to be complicated. So often, over the years, my codependent tendencies would kick in and I would wonder if I needed to go see my brother and speak to him. I had sent him a note to let him know how I felt about him and that I prayed for him. I sent him a Bible and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  However, absolute dread and fear would wash over me at thought of seeing him. I would talk it through in therapy and with trusted, believing friends. They would remind me that God would not demand this as proof of my love for my brother. They would remind me that I could not save my brother. Only God could do that. They would remind me that if God willed it, one day I would have the courage to speak to him.

Finally, four weeks ago, I did have the courage to speak to my brother. I had an unexpected opportunity when I went to his hospital. I was at the hospital for the second time trying to stay abreast of his commitment review process. He approached me while I was waiting in the hospital lobby. We hugged, I cried, and we spoke for almost an hour. I had the chance to tell him everything I had hoped to one day have the courage to say. I had the chance to tell him that I did not support the recommendation for outpatient treatment. I had the chance to tell him that he can turn to God for healing and transformation, instead of trying to manipulate his way to freedom. I told him that it was possible for him to wake up one day, in the same hospital room, feeling more free than he’s ever felt in his entire life. I had a chance to tell him that the freedom he longed for and everything he needed could only come from God. I was so scared. My heart raced and my hands shook. However, by God’s grace, I had all the strength I needed. I walked away from the interaction feeling stronger and more whole than I had felt before. I had been asking God to show me what love looks like in this situation and I feel that because I love my brother I must speak up.

I have learned that loving and forgiving my brother does not relieve me of my responsibility to speak up. It does not mean I join others in minimizing the great evil that has taken place or join them in ignoring the very real possibility that others may get hurt. It does not mean ignoring where someone is spiritually and psychologically; it does not mean ignoring his capacity for deception and destruction. Loving and forgiving does not mean I can contribute to evil and destruction by refusing to speak the truth. Loving and forgiving does not mean that I pretend I do not see and pretend I do not hear, simply because pretending would be more comfortable.

I have also realized that I can only speak up today because I have experienced so much healing in the last 7 years. I can confront lies and deception today because I am operating from a place of strength and courage, love and forgiveness. Although I am afraid, I am not operating from a place of helplessness and despair. Trusting God and His sovereignty gives me everything I need to be able to act and to do my part, regardless of how difficult, complicated, and uncomfortable it is. I know that God’s sovereignty does not guarantee the outcome I desire. That does not change anything because my hope is not in a particular outcome but in God Himself. My hope is in His faithfulness, His goodness, and His mercy. My hope is in His promise to walk with me even through the valley of the shadow of death.