What would you do if someone killed your children? A year ago, when the three children and niece of Leila and Danny Abdallah were struck and killed by a drunk driver while they were walking to get ice cream, I wondered how those parents made sense of that immediate loss. How you could go on in life with that immense grief; with the rage that you’d feel towards the driver of the vehicle? I think I’d want to kill him. I think I’d want to kill myself. But in honour of their children, on the anniversary of the terrible deaths of Antony, Angelina, Sienna, and their cousin Veronique, their parents have launched ‘I4Give Day’ as an annual time of letting go.
In any tragedy there is torment. Blame is the first port of call. Blame feels like the right harbour in which to anchor your hatred, to find meaning in the unfathomable. To retrace the moments of what you thought was an ordinary day, to look for clues that you think you should have seen! Most times, deep down, the real hardship is that people blame themselves. To live a life filled with self-blame, is a death in itself. It corrupts joy, it is a half-life lived in the grip of self-loathing; it’s what happens when a drunk driver kills your kids. Retrospect is no friend here. Those parents must have thought, ‘When our kids begged “Can we walk down the shops and get an ice cream? Can we? Can we? We’ll stay together. We’ll look after the littlest one!” Why did we say yes? Why didn’t we go with them?’ I heard Danny on the radio a few days ago saying very simply ‘I forgive myself’. It was such a simple statement, and so profound it hit me with that kind of emotion you feel deep in your core.
But then he went on. He said the unthinkable; ‘… and I forgive him’. He was talking about the drunk driver. A driver who had three times the legal limit of alcohol in his system, cocaine, and MDMA. That was unbelievable. This mother and father of the children he killed said they forgave him – that man, who was 29 at the time, who is now in jail. That man who has to live with the deaths of four kids on his conscience. Who is himself the son of parents, who must now mourn his ‘death’, and carry the legacy of shame and regret for what their son did. And the blame. Was his behaviour a fault of theirs?
What a gift is the forgiveness of Antony, Angelina, Sienna, and Veronique’s parents. It’s transformational. Blame, vengenance and rage keeps you in the moment of trauma forever. Forgiveness releases you. It’s so simple, but so impossible at the same time. The Abdallah family are Christian, and they credit their faith in giving them the strength to survive the tragedy. The ability and strength to forgive. They didn’t want the day of their kids’ death to be remembered as a tragedy, but instead as a day of letting go. Wow. I’m no Christian, but that’s powerful. That’s such a deep understanding of the core of their religion, something not always reflected in a lot of Christian, practise.
I often wonder about what it is like to live with something terrible like that. A 29 year old who was living recklessly, who’d ‘got on it’ with his mate. Who was all charged up and behind the wheel, who lost control and killed four kids. It’s hard to have compassion for him. It’s so much easier to hate than to see the human story. My father was like that man, the one behind the wheel; he was a drunk driver who killed another man. I guess that might be why the words of Danny Abdallah: ‘I forgive him’ made me cry. My father died in the crash, but he killed the grandfather of a school friend. I didn’t know until someone told me, and I felt this incredible shame. Like it was something I had done. One day this girl spoke to me and told me it was okay. That it didn’t have anything to do with me. I was released.
Living your life fuelled by this pointless anger and blame about something that happened, that you can’t change, is sometimes more of a tragedy than the tragedy itself. The trauma of that day, of a particular incident then poisons not just you, but the people in your life, forever. Your partner, your kids, your friends. It’s a prison of self-flagellation and hopelessness. But guess what? Unlike an actual prison, you have the key to freedom. It’s been in your hand the whole time. It’s forgiveness.
You don’t need to be Christian to forgive. It’s non-denominational. You don’t need to believe in a God either. Even atheists can let go. Forgiveness is something that’s long been missing from the world stage, but perhaps if we start to practise it in our own small lives, things might start to change.
1 Feb was ‘I4Give Day’ – perhaps you could mark it in your calendar too as the day each year you let go.