On Tragedy, Forgiveness, and Action
Years ago I found myself with my family, and my husband’s family, at a funeral in a packed non denominational church in Miami Florida for four family members. On Ash Wednesday of that year, an irony that did not escape me, my Cuban American brother-in-law shot and killed his wife and two youngest daughters. His only son was unharmed, and his only surviving daughter was away at school.
My husband’s family was in shock, staring at the coffins of their beloved sister, two gorgeous and talented nieces, and,God help me, their murderer. We had placed ourselves as far away from my late brother-in-law’s coffin as possible, and were seated before one of his daughter’s. During the entire funeral service I found myself staring at that poor young woman’s picture, listening to her siblings, teachers, friends, and family say goodbye.
Words cannot express the helplessness of sitting there saying goodbye to those three wonderful women in that service. The surviving children had put together a video montage of their family, so we were subjected to many, many pictures of my brother-in-law, which felt kind of like the worst kind of mental and physical torture. We were not saying goodbye to him, but rather wishing him a hot time in Hell. Friends of his stood up and told us to forgive him, that he wasn’t himself, and that they’d already forgiven him. Nice touch, y’all. Not yet, maybe never. Still working on it, dear God.
My sister-in-law had been the beloved only daughter, and in the back of my mind I was glad my mother-in-law was not alive to experience the hell we were in. The media had been hounding the surviving children, their church, friends, working social media and any other way they could to trick someone into revealing where those poor kids were hiding. They camped outside the funeral home, trying to sneak in the door at times during the viewing. I was ashamed to be a member of the human race seeing what they were doing.
My brother-in-law had shot his wife in her sleep, then turned his gun on his daughters who tried to defend themselves. That afternoon, after my surviving niece had been told, she called me to get phone numbers and told me what had happened. I was the one who had to call my husband and his brothers and tell them that their sister and two nieces had been the victims of a murder suicide. One brother-in-law got the family UMC minister and they broke the news to my poor father-in-law, the gentlest, sweetest man I know. You can imagine that he was broken hearted.
As I heard about the bombings in Boston, then the plant explosion in West, Texas, I didn’t think of those horrible days in Miami. Not until after church yesterday did the whole thing become lodged in my heart, and I started to think about forgiveness and tragedy. Our parish priest, Father Les Carpenter, did an amazing homily yesterday, binding into it a familiar church hymn to how he felt while absorbing all the news of tragedy last week. He challenged us to step up to the plate, and be the Christians we need to be in this tragic time, and not take sides, not point fingers, not to polarize against ethnic or religious groups. To forgive and help to heal.
The day that my niece called, I immediately called our parish priest at the time. He was all sympathy, all spoken kindness, and that was it. No more calls until days later when we were in Miami getting dressed for the viewing at the funeral home. No one from our church called, no offers of help. Ironically it was the members of my sister-in-law’s church in Miami and their minister who helped us the most, and made the days in Miami almost bearable.
When we came back, that love, comfort, and condoling were gone. It was as if this horrible tragedy hadn’t happened, and we were left to deal with it by ourselves. Luckily our relatives in upstate NY live in small towns, and their church families and communities took care of them, wrapping them in compassion and love. It took me a long time to forgive our priest for being so cold and uncaring, but then he always said that he was not the kind of priest to visit and do that one on one kind of thing. I had a crisis of faith, and dropped out of our parish’s Daughters of the King, mostly because my sisters there had maintained radio silence on me. Why? Because our parish priest told them they could help when I asked for it, I was told later.
I almost left that parish, but we stayed, mostly because my husband wanted to stay put and not add an additional emotional and spiritual burden on our children. He’s smart like that. I’m no longer a member of Daughters of the King, especially after one of the national group kept calling and demanding that I send my cross back, or the year’s back dues I owed.
Didn’t matter that the former Bishop of Texas himself had placed that cross in my happy big ole hands; I left it on our old parish priest’s desk for him to deal with it. Never said a word to me, but I assume that Daughters of the King got it because they stopped calling and sending letters. Funny how a cross can have so much meaning other than the Crucifixion of Jesus. As Jesus had his moment of feeling abandoned on the Cross, so mine were spun out over months.
There is so much need for forgiveness, help, compassion in our country right now. Don’t wait for someone to ask, just do what you can in the name of humanity and kindness. Help keep the blood banks full, even when there’s not a tragedy, have a bake sale and donate the proceeds, help rebuild in West, Texas, if your place of worship does that kind of out reach. As many human beings as there are on our tiny planet, there’s something we can each do to help our country heal, and reach out to our brothers and sisters suffering right now. Don’t wait while their hearts are breaking. Don’t be afraid to see another’s tears, or share a shoulder or hand. Don’t make them ask, because they won’t.