The Way of Letting Go:
One Woman’s Walk Toward Forgiveness
I collect radical forgiveness stories.
As I continue to come to terms with my own experiences of trauma, I search out forgiveness mentors through stories – real life or mythologized. Through reading a wide array of stories, I’ve discovered what is probably logical: No act of forgiveness happens without, first, an incident of suffering. In this way, I guess you could also say that I collect stories of suffering.
It was this habit that led me to Wilma Derksen’s memoir of trauma and forgiveness, The Way of Letting Go: One Woman’s Walk Toward Forgiveness, released in February. Derksen, now an international speaker on victimization and criminal justice issues, was on November 30, 1984, a mother and struggling journalist. When her 13-year-old daughter, Candace, called to ask for a ride home from school. Derksen was busy with a writing deadline, and asked her daughter to walk home from school instead. After that phone conversation, she never spoke to her daughter again.
It would take seven weeks for police to discover Candace’s body, bound, tied, and frozen in a shed near their family home. The investigators were able to immediately rule the death a homicide, but would take 22 years to charge Mark Edward Grant with murder. Now, 33 years following Candace’s death, the case is still tied up on appeals in the Canadian court system.
These details, and many more, make the Derksen’s story devastating. The family’s commitment to forgive their daughter’s killer makes their story profound. In the days following the discovery of their daughter’s body, the Derksens were faced with an unexpected question during a televised press conference:
“‘And what about the person who murdered your daughter?’
Cliff, my husband, was the first to answer it. And he said it with a kind of fait-accompli assurance.
I would do the only thing I know how to do; I would let go.” (27)
The Derksens relied on their faith for guidance during that press conference, a faith that would be stretched thin in the following years. At the time, though, their pledge to forgive captured the imagination of their community in Winnipeg, and then around the world.
“From then on we became known as the couple who had forgiven. In hindsight, I don’t think we had any idea what forgiveness looked like in the face of murder, but our state of mind at the time was such that we knew we had to say no to anger and obsession. We determined to resist anything that would keep us in a state of emotional bondage, both for our sake and the sake of our other two children.”
In many ways, Derksen’s story is also about identity, and the altered identity that accompanies trauma. The author describes a pivotal moment that occurred the night Candace’s body was found. A stranger showed up at her door and introduced himself as the “parent of a murdered child, too.” In this encounter, Derksen realized that her family’s identity would be unalterably linked with trauma. Consequently, Letting Go is the story of Wilma Derksen’s acceptance of her new identity as a victim of trauma, and her response to that identity as a victim who forgives.
The Way of Letting Go follows the Derksens through the next 33 years of learning how to keep their pledge of forgiveness and how to let go of the many barriers to personal healing they’d encounter along the way. “As I traveled across the country and met other people who have experienced the murder of a loved one, I would listen to their stories, and I started to incorporate their issues as well [as my own], distributing them into a list of fifteen issues that we faced. Except they weren’t ordinary issues – these were issues of monstrous proportion…” (32)
Derksen uses a monster metaphor to describe the fifteen most common “emotional landmines” she found in her own experience and that of those she met in her research. Through the rest of the book she dedicates a chapter to each form of emotional response to trauma using her own stories as illustration.
Wilma Derksen’s determination to survive debilitating grief has led her to spend years researching the science of trauma. In the book, though, she chooses to share those findings through the accessible language of anecdote rather than psychological terminology. In a similar way, Derksen chooses to use generic terms in her biblical references, citing speaking experiences among trauma victims in secular environments (including penitentiaries and Muslim nations). These narrative choices makes the book suitable for readers with various reading levels, (non)religious backgrounds, and experiences of trauma. On a personal level, I was grateful for her paraphrase of the Sermon on the Mount which provided me with fresh insight sometimes hindered in traditional church language. I was also grateful for the inclusion of endnotes that provided some of the clinical terminology in the back of the book.
The only misstep is the early chapter in which Derksen introduces the fifteen “monsters” of grief as fifteen different movie villains any reader might recognize. This is an interesting concept and might have been helpful as a summary rather than an introduction to her book. Without the benefit of knowing many details of her own story, I found the list of movie monsters distracting, even trivializing what, I’d already presumed to be horrific, real-life grief. The framework for the rest of the book is far more effective in describing the overwhelming onslaught of grief and suffering that trauma victims face.
Along with personal anecdotes, each chapter includes a paraphrased portion of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, and concludes with a simple, personal statement of letting go. For example, in the chapter titled “Letting Go of My Rage”, Derksen recalls the time soon after Candace’s death she’d confessed to a friend her fantasy of killing ten child murderers to satisfy justice. From there she references the teaching of Jesus (whom Derksen refers to as “the Nazarene”), instructing his disciples that in His economy wanting to kill is as serious as the actual act. She concludes the chapter with a story of visiting an inmate support group for ten men serving life sentences for murder. In her willingness to listen to their stories (and theirs to hers), she discovers that she “didn’t want to kill them. I understood them and valued very much what they had given” her. She ends with a summary statement for this act of letting go: “I had to let go of my rage and redirect my energy into battling for good.”
From the stranger who showed up at her door the night her daughter’s body was found, Wilma Derksen recognized that while she did not have any choice in receiving this new identity as a “mother of a murdered child”, she did have a choice in the way she responded to the grief. From the blur of their own heartbreak, she and her husband observed a man who had suffered not only the death of his child, but had lost his own life to the abyss of bitterness, rage, and despair. By choosing the difficult, life-giving path of acceptance, surrender and forgiveness, Derksen invites us to consider a Gospel-shaped possibility for us all.
Tamara Hill Murphy writes at her website about daily practices of art, liturgy, and relationships. She lives in Fairfield, Conn., with her husband Brian, an Anglican priest, where they are learning how to parent their four adult children.