"Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” – Ephesians 4:31-32
October 18, 2016 represented two years of waiting. Two years spent in and out of hospitals, months of physical and occupational therapy, six procedures to date (one spinal, one vascular and four abdominal surgeries) and a seventh, another back surgery, scheduled for November after my honeymoon.
Everyone who had supported me hoped for a conviction and agreed the offender should go to jail. This agreement wasn’t due to unforgiveness; rather, the knowledge that forgiveness and justice are separate things.
I had forgiven her for driving at a BAC of twice the legal limit, traveling the wrong-way on the expressway, hitting my car head-on and all that was lost consequently.
Two days before the crash, on November 7, 2014, I took my dog for a walk and asked God what it would take for certain prayers to be answered. I prayed for my best friend and father to return to Christ, to meet my husband and to make an impact with my life. After seven months, God answered.
He said, “Erin it will take something tragic, and it will happen to you.”
I said, “God do whatever you need to, just don’t take my life.”
This exchange enabled me to forgive all, but one thing because I felt that God had asked my permission; he extended me free will.
However, facing the offender in court each month challenged me. Each time I saw her, she represented the dignity I had to fight to regain, all the tears I had shed, all the hopeless/shameful feelings I had about losing basic functions of my body, and all of my shattered dreams.
Additionally, she appeared cold, never looking in my direction. She gave off the impression she didn’t care. The state’s attorney and state trooper confirmed this sentiment. The state trooper said that in his 17-year experience, she was the most narcissistic young lady he had encountered.
As a trauma victim, I wanted her to feel remorse more than I wanted her in prison. Because I knew what happened to me could easily happen to someone else.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, “one-third of all drivers arrested or convicted of drunk driving are repeat offenders.”
But, I knew I needed to forgive completely regardless of the outcome. I believed a lie that told me I needed her remorse to validate my experience. And believing this challenged my ability to move forward.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “By embracing forgiveness, you can also embrace peace, hope, gratitude and joy.”
Holding onto resentful feelings over the offender’s lack of remorse threatened the joy I had in God’s answer to my specific prayers, and the hope I had in him to use something terrible for good. By focusing on what the offender wasn’t doing distracted me from being at peace with God and myself, and trusting that my pain had a very important purpose. Bitterness was taking root and it began to cloud my gratitude for all God had done.
The week before, the minister of my church gave a sermon on forgiveness. I learned that wholehearted forgiveness means letting go of resentful feelings towards someone, whether he/she deserves it or not. It does not mean forgetting what happened or excusing the defendant’s actions. It meant freeing myself from the bitterness that tried to assimilate control over the defendant, her choices and the situation. It also meant giving myself permission to move on with life, to fully love my to-be-husband, and to extend myself the grace to accept the newfound changes to my body. By forgiving the offender completely, I also gave myself room to mourn my losses, but not stay there.
Finally, our case was called. The judge presented the charges against the now 24-year-old: Felony for Aggravated DUI causing great bodily harm and 18 months incarceration.
“How do you plead?” he asked.
"Guilty,” she said.
My sister then read her victim impact statement, which recounted “parenting” an adult who had to relearn how to function due to paraplegia, and the constant fear of me dying.
Next, it was my turn. My statement was uncomfortably honest. To withhold the most personal details would deprive the offender of knowing how her decision had impacted another person.
I read, “While I may not have physically died on November 9, 2014, I lost my life.”
I detailed my injuries including two burst fractures of the spine, holes in several intestines, three broken ribs, a fractured sternum, concussion, severed iliac artery, lacerated liver and a broken right foot.
I shared about the month-long stay at two different hospitals and several surgeries, including three emergency ones. The third surgery became necessary because the first one to repair holes in my intestines failed, and I became septic. I spent six more weeks in inpatient rehab learning to sit-up, catheterize myself, change my colostomy, and walk using a walker, while suspended in a harness that hung from the ceiling. Additionally, a love interest told me he no longer found me attractive, and I wondered if any man would love me despite my newfound disabilities.
I also recounted how, the year prior, the offender asked the judge for permission to go to Las Vegas and that he granted it.
I said, “While you are baring your intact belly, I’m carrying around a scar and poop bag on mine. On social media, you wrote, ‘loving life.’ At least if you are too ashamed to admit wrongdoing, you could have the decency to not rub in the fact that you’re loving life while I’m begging God to pee.”
I concluded, "Your behavior and seeming lack of remorse has been the most difficult. I forgive you, though I don't think you deserve it. Because, likewise, Jesus forgave me and I didn't deserve it."
I looked up and said one additional thing that wasn't written down. And with a confused look, the defendant absorbed my words.
“Your worth doesn’t come from the attention drinking and wearing skimpy clothing brings," I said. "Your worth comes from God. You are beautiful, and everything because of him.”
The judge asked if the offender wanted to say anything. I braced myself.
Then the impossible happened. The defendant stood up.
"I won’t make excuses for what I did,” she said. “I messed up and I’m sorry Erin.”
Through tears, she continued. "You’re right, I can live my life once I serve my sentence, but you’ll never have your life back, and I’m so sorry."
The judge told her to go with the officer. I jumped up.
“Wait,” I exclaimed. I asked to hug the offender. We stood in the middle of the courtroom embracing and sobbing. The wails from both families intensified.
She looked at me with tears and said, "I don't know what they [the lawyers] dug up about me, but it isn't true."
I said, "I forgive you. I want you to know that. I want you to know that it was no coincidence that you hit me of all people that night. I believe you hit me so that I could show you God. Do you get that?"
"Yes," she replied. We parted ways and she was taken into custody.
My family and I then hugged every member of her family, including her lawyer who walked up in tears, hugged me and apologized.
In one single moment, my enemy became my friend.
Forgiveness is a gift. I not only gave the offender the best gift before prison, I received one in return—the ability to enter marriage freed from the bondage of bitterness. And I got what I asked for: God answered every prayer.
My physical demonstration of forgiveness turned out to be the most healing and powerful moment of my life. I demonstrated God’s love to a stranger who didn’t deserve forgiveness, because God did that for me.
Read more of Erin's story at ChicagoNow.com