This week has a significant anniversary. My sister Becky was murdered 35 years ago this week. My hope in sharing this very personal story is to encourage and inspire forgiveness.
True Story Ahead
They say a picture is worth a 1,000 words. I think I agree. This is one of the few pictures I have of Becky and I love it. She was full of life, spunk, and humor. She lit up every room she entered. She was light-hearted and smart. I’m sure her love language was gifts because she was always gifting people. She thoroughly enjoyed Christmas. She always brought some funky item from Fredericks of Hollywood as a gag gift to one of my other sisters. They had to open it in front of everyone including our parents. Given I’m much younger than my sisters, I was never the one who had to open her “surprise” gift. I loved watching my sisters turn bright red. I found this whole tradition incredibly fun.
Becky hated boxelder bugs, and I don’t blame her. They are disgusting. Sometimes during my freshman year in college, I would stay with her and her husband on weekends. One time while I was there, she saw one boxelder bug crawling on the outside of her patio window. I personally would have left it be, but not Becky. She wanted that red-striped bug gone. She grabbed an oven mitt, wrapped an entire roll of paper towels around her mitt, then charged outside, snuck up on that unsuspecting bug and squished it. I can still see her dancing, screaming, and scrunching her face. I enjoyed her dramatic entertainment. She was hilarious! Note: I didn’t offer to help her because I hate box elder bugs too. She was a lone soldier on that quest, but she was a conqueror.
I wish I could say the same when it came to that November day. Oh, she was a lone soldier, but she didn’t conquer that day. Domestic abuse is real. It starts with verbal and emotional abuse and can escalate into physical abuse before you know it. Far too many people think that abuse is just physical. I disagree. Verbal and emotional abuse is just as damaging and always precede physical abuse. In my sister’s case, her life ended at the hands of her husband. She was 32 years old.
To Forgive or Not to Forgive
Becky’s death has forever changed my life and my family’s life (and by family, I mean my parents and my siblings). We miss her. We miss her a lot. And this week every year, we remember her life and death. There is no way not to remember.
Significant difficult trials in our lives require something significant from us. We have a choice to make. How are we going to deal with them? Both myself and my family chose forgiveness.
Sometimes I’m concerned when people see me, read my writings, or talk to me, they think I’m shallow because I have lots of positivity and joy, and like my sister Becky, light-heartedness. They may think I’ve never endured hardship. They’d be wrong. Today, I stand firm to share, I’ve endured numerous difficult and extremely painful hardships throughout my life. My sister’s death is one of them.
You may be wondering how can someone forgive the person who murdered his/her sister. My answer: only with the help of Jesus.
There’s a supernatural power within followers of Jesus. That power is the Holy Spirit. Through this amazing power of our Lord, we can forgive even the most heinous acts. I know because I have forgiven my brother-in-law and so has the rest of my family.
Here’s what I know, God has used sorrow in my life to produce joy. Forgiveness is a key element to having a joyful life. If we don’t forgive, we become bitter. When bitterness takes root in our soul, it produces an ugly person. I don’t desire to be an ugly person. I want to be what Jesus wants me to be. I know He wants me to be joyful.
Grieving vs Forgiveness
Forgiving my brother-in-law doesn’t mean I didn’t grieve. I did. We all did. Each one of us grieved and each one of us has experienced our own journey to forgiveness. I didn’t realize in the first few hours after my sister’s death that Jesus had already begun helping me forgive.
I look back now and know by my behavior what was happening in my soul. I was knocked down. Tears, sobs, and sadness at the loss of Becky consumed me. I could barely believe it was true.
I lived alone in an apartment in the Twin Cities and the rest of my family lived in South Dakota. It was a lonely evening for me even though my boyfriend (now husband) was with me. There was an emptiness inside of me. A piece of me was gone.
I remember clearly asking my Mom how “he” was doing. She told me he was the one who called the police after it happened. He was arrested. He was suicidal. Do you know what I did? I prayed for him! Who does that? I did. I prayed God would protect him, comfort him, and help him. Even in my own grief, I prayed for the one who murdered my sister. Only Jesus could enable me to do that. I know that now, but I didn’t understand it in those first few hours how incomprehensible that was.
I forgave my brother-in-law that very evening. I can’t explain it other than it was Jesus who helped me forgive. I remember “hearing” a whisper as I lay on a couch. “Michelle, forgive him. He didn’t know what he was doing.”
Years later I saw for the first time in Luke 23:34, as Jesus was hanging on the cross He said similar words to the Heavenly Father. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
I’ve come to believe that forgiveness is not an option for Christians. We have to forgive. I don’t judge how long it takes people to forgive, but I do encourage it to happen as quickly as possible so that bitterness and hate don’t take root in our souls.
Over the years, I’ve learned much more about grieving. It comes in waves. Earlier this year, my Mom died. I still cry frequently. I miss her too. Tears help me deal with pain and ultimately help me heal.
About a month ago I was cleaning out a file cabinet at home to make room for new files. I came across an envelope with my own handwriting on the front of it. It says, “Becky’s Stuff.” I fumbled with the envelope, walked into my writing room, and closed the door.
In this envelope were three documents from the lawyer who took her case. There was a Petition for Formal Adjudication of Intestacy, Determination of Heirs, and Appointment of Administrator, who would be me. I was only 20 years old.
As I read the documents tears sprung up from inside of me. I didn’t expect this reaction. It’s been 35 years since she died. But these documents are evidence of my sister’s brutal death. Grief showed up again. I can’t imagine what she was feeling or experiencing in the moments just before she was murdered. I actually try not to think about it because it’s really painful. On this day just a few weeks ago, I let myself cry until no more tears came.
It’s okay to do that. Tears help us heal.
This experience in no way means I haven’t forgiven my brother-in-law, but it does mean that grief comes in waves. It was that very afternoon that I decided to write about Becky’s death. She would want people to know how important it is to forgive. She would not want people becoming bitter. That would ruin what her life represented. God made her to be a fun, light-hearted, happy person. I know her demeanor means she readily forgave people. You can’t stay that way in life without forgiveness.
About a year after my brother-in-law was in prison, I went to visit him. I needed to tell him I had forgiven him. My boyfriend (now husband) went with me. It was a conversation I won’t forget.
He was surprised to see me. I told him immediately why I had come. “I forgive you,” I said. His eyes told me what his heartfelt. Tears are our soul’s transparency.
Just like I can’t imagine what my sister experienced in the moments before she died, I also can’t imagine how my brother-in-law felt hearing those words after what he did. Forgiveness is freedom from prison.
Encouragement for You
While Becky’s death has impacted me and my family forever in many ways, the biggest way is that we know the power of forgiveness. We also know what would have happened had we not forgiven our brother-in-law. None of us ever want to be joyless and bitter. That would not honor our sister, and we all expect to see her when we get to heaven. I’m pretty sure none of us would want to hear her ask why we didn’t forgive him when she had.
Friends, the Bible says that we are to forgive others who sin against us (Matthew 6:14-15). It’s even in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6). We need to obey this command. It’s not to dismiss how horrible someone may have treated you or someone you love, it’s to protect our own soul and to keep it out of prison.
I know some things are really hard to forgive, but I know with Jesus’ power to help us we can forgive anyone for anything any day and every day.
Is there someone you need to forgive? Just do it. Set them free and set yourself free.
Becky, my sweet and funny sister, thank you for being you. Thank you for loving life and loving people. I know I’m not the only one looking forward to seeing your smiling face one day. You have a few siblings here who can’t wait to hug you again. While we won’t be gifting you with anything from Fredericks of Hollywood, the best gift we could ever give to you is forgiveness.
Your youngest sister Michelle
**This post appeared originally on Michelle Barringer’s blog.