When Michael Davis spoke at his daughter Claire’s memorial service Wednesday about forgivingKarl Pierson – the boy who shot her at Arapahoe High School in Colorado – he was likely at the start of a difficult emotional road, experts on forgiveness say.
Forgiveness is often misunderstood – and some people may even condemn Mr. Davis’s remarks, believing that they excuse Mr. Pierson’s actions or are an attempt at a “quick fix” – but forgiveness “does not cast justice aside … [and] when it comes to a tragedy like this, forgiveness is a long journey,” says Robert Enright, an educational psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of “The Forgiving Life.”
“My wife and I forgive Karl Pierson for what he did,” Davis said Wednesday as he struggled to hold back tears. “We would ask all of you here and all of you watching to search your hearts and also forgive Karl Pierson. He didn’t know what he was doing.”
Investigators say Pierson, 18, entered the school Dec. 13 heavily armed, looking for a speech coach who had disciplined him. He shot Claire Davis shortly before killing himself when a sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school approached him. Claire died eight days later.
Some law enforcement officers have referred to Pierson publicly as “the murderer,” but Davis said, “The young man that shot Claire had a name. His name was Karl Pierson…. [He] allowed himself to become filled with anger and rage and hatred…. The fact is that Karl was so blinded by his emotions he didn’t know what he was doing.”
Claire’s last words were to ask Pierson, “Oh my gosh, Karl, what are you doing?” and that was her way of trying to illuminate the emotional darkness that had enveloped Pierson, her father said.
Davis “is not all of a sudden wrapping up all of his negative emotions in a little box … and all is well,” Professor Enright says. “He’s going to be going through a process of forgiveness…. Rage might come into the picture for him” after this initial stage where “psychological defenses” are kicking in, he speculates. “Forgiveness doesn’t wipe away pain; it helps us go through the pain in a healthy way to get to a healthy resolution.”
While it’s not the path all people take in the face of losing a loved one to an act of violence, some choose forgiveness or feel compelled to forgive.
• In Ohio, after T.J. Lane shot and killed her son Demetrius Hewlin and two other students in Chardon, Ohio, in February 2012, Phyllis Ferguson told ABC News that if she had a chance to talk with Lane (who pleaded guilty and received a life sentence), “I would tell him I forgive him because, a lot of times, they don’t know what they’re doing.” She continued: “I taught Demetrius not to live in the past, to live in today and forgiveness is divine. You have to forgive everything…. Until you’ve walked in another person’s shoes, you don’t know what made him come to this point.”
• In Florida, Andy and Kate Grosmaire forgave their daughter’s fiancé, Conor McBride, after he murdered their daughter in a rage in 2010. They sought restorative justice rather than a trial, and Mr. McBride was sentenced to 20 years, more than they had requested but less than is typical in such cases, according to the NBC news program “Today.” “I felt like my daughter was asking me to forgive Conor, and I just told her I couldn’t, and there’s just no way I could,” Andy Grosmaire said on “Today” in March 2013. “At the end I said, ‘I’ll try.’ Later on in that week, on Thursday, I really felt like my daughter was joined with Christ, and that he and her were asking me to forgive. And I just had never said no before to them, so I wasn’t going to say no this time. It was just an uplifting of joy and peace.’’ The forgiveness lasted even after visiting McBride in prison, the couple said.
Victims don’t have to feel forgiveness in order to seek restorative justice – which is oriented around meeting victims’ needs and holding offenders accountable – but the process does “leave the door open to forgiveness in the way the regular criminal justice system does not,” says Sujatha Balinga, director of National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s Restorative Justice Project.
• In 2006, Charles Roberts shot 10 girls in an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, a village of Lancaster County, Pa. Five of the girls died and Roberts killed himself. The day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the victims warned against hating Roberts, who was not Amish, and Amish neighbors reached out to comfort and forgive Roberts’ widow, in-laws, and parents.
In Nickel Mines, “the speed of that response is what caught the eye of the world,” says Donald Kraybill, co-author of a book about the case, “Amish Grace,” and a senior fellow at the Young Center at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
It sparked a lot of dialogue because “it was so counterintuitive to the typical American model, where we may struggle with forgiveness for five or six years … or we may not even try to walk on that journey,” Professor Kraybill says. But because empathy and grace and compassion are so engrained in Amish culture, Kraybill says, it wasn’t unusual to hear from a member of the Amish community that the Roberts family had the bigger burden to bear – the embarrassment or shame of what he had done.
Some critics said of the Amish response that it’s not healthy if the victims’ families don’t get angry first, Kraybill says. Others, holding to a more traditional version of forgiveness, said it can happen only if the perpetrator expresses remorse (which can’t occur when the perpetrator has already died).
But in recent decades, in the mental-health community and in many spiritual communities, “forgiveness simply means that the victim … on their own, irrespective of anything related to the offender, lets go of bitterness and resentment,” Enright says, and lets go of “the right to revenge,” by refusing to retaliate. Victims who forgive can still hold the offender accountable, but they are declaring their freedom – that they won’t be held hostage by the past or by anger, he says.
A growing body of research suggests that this type of forgiveness is good for the well-being of people who practice it.
“When people take the time to forgive properly, to see the humanity in the other,” as Davis talked about with Pierson, “we tend to see [that they experience] reductions in anger, anxiety, and psychological depression, and increases in hope for the future,” Enright says.
Stanford University researchers have found that forgiveness can be learned. Upon conducting several studies in Northern Ireland, they found that people who had lost loved ones to violence there, after taking part in a week of forgiveness training, decreased the amount of hurt, anger, stress, and depression they felt and increased their rating on a scale of forgiveness.
Said Davis on Wednesday: “The essence of true forgiveness is to repeatedly choose to love consciously, and to make love more important than hate, despair, or fear. By expressing love, compassion, and forgiveness in our daily lives, we will honor Claire, and keep our hearts focused there.”