How do families move on from unspeakably tragic losses? For some, including the Oregon parents of two young girls killed in an October hit-and-run, the answer may be surprising: forgiveness.
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“I can't change what happened to my girls. I've said many times I just want to wake up, reverse the clocks, but I can't change it,” Susan Dieter-Robinson, the mother of Anna Dieter-Eckerdt, 6, and stepmom of Abigail Robinson, 11, tells KGW in an interview Monday. But she and husband Tom Robinson say, amazingly, that they’ve already forgiven the 18-year-old who accidentally ran over their girls as they played in a pile of curbside leaves on Oct. 20.
“It's one of those freaky things that happen, the timing of it all, totally freak accident and they understand and realize that,” the couple’s friend, Pastor Eric Schmitt of the Sonrise Church in Forest Grove, tells KGW. He admits that their big-hearted reaction is rare, but adds, “By their actions, by their behavior, and by their character, that's who we're all supposed to be.”
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Schmitt adds that the couple wants to eventually meet in person with driver Cinthya Garcia Cisneros, 18, to tell her they know it was an accident. Cisneros was driving with her boyfriend and her brother, according to court documents, when she rode over a large pile of leaves, felt a significant bump, and continued on her way home. After her brother returned to the scene and found out that they'd run over the girls, Cisneros's boyfriend, Mario Echeverria, allegedly took the SUV they were in to a car wash to remove any evidence. Both Cisneros and Echeverria were arrested based on a citizen tip, and both have since pled not guilty.
Dieter-Robinson and Robinson are not alone in finding the strength to forgive those who have either accidentally or intentionally killed their loved ones. Scarlett Lewis, the mother of first-grader Jesse, who was shot and killed during the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, released a memoir this week, “Nurturing Healing Love.” She spoke during an interview about forgiving shooter Adam Lanza.
“It's my journey of trying to turn an unspeakable tragedy into something that will make the world a better place,” Lewis tells the Hartford Courant about her book, adding that she and her older son spent time learning about other tragedies and how people have healed from them. “If the children living in orphanages could forgive their neighbors who committed genocide,” she says, “then I thought I can forgive the boy who killed Jesse.”
Also in October, 26-year-old Devon Pulley, of Virginia, died after 60-year-old Kathy Ellis drove the wrong way on the freeway and caused a head-on collision. Now, Pulley’s grandmother Helen Bloomfield tells WTVR that she is grateful for the years she had with Pulley, and that she wants to bring a message to Ellis, who remains hospitalized. “I’m going to …let her know who I am and that I pray for her,” said Bloomfield. “I forgive her. God doesn’t make mistakes.”
Psychologist Frederic Luskin, author of the best-selling “Forgive for Good” and director of the research-based Stanford Forgiveness Project, tells Yahoo Shine that finding forgiveness after such tragic losses is a natural step in the recovery process. “When something really horrible happens, it’s highly motivating for people to find out what reduces suffering,” he explains. “And not blaming and not hating reduces suffering. With forgiveness, one of the levels of torment is reduced.”
Much research has examined the benefits of forgiveness, including a series of studies by the American Psychological Association that found it improves physical and mental health and restores a victim’s sense of personal power. One of the studies in that series looked at the idea of people forgiving the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks just three to six weeks after the event and found that it was not only possible but “part of the package,” and helpful. “Those ambivalent about forgiveness reported more psychological distress than those who either had forgiven or who were against forgiveness.”
Jeni Burnette, an assistant professor of psychology University of Richmond, has co-authored various studies on forgiveness. She tells Yahoo Shine that it has been found to have remarkable physical-healing powers. “In the aftermath of transgressions, forgiveness can protect physical health by reducing stress and rumination. For example, forgiveness is associated with lower blood pressure as well as lower heart rate,” she notes. “Additionally, forgiveness of severe offenses has been linked to reduced anxiety and depressive symptoms.”
It’s those psychological relievers that motivate most people, Luskin notes. “After a while, the helplessness at being angry at something that can’t change becomes overwhelming, and it’s a destructive experience,” he says. “I think they get so tired of being battered by their own reaction that they say, ‘I have to let this go.’”
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