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Paying Attention to Suffering

Victims and offenders so often find themselves in the same place at the same time that it almost seems as if they are being supernaturally drawn together for reconciliation.

There are many kinds of suffering. Our family was plunged into a world of pain and suffering in 1984 when our oldest daughter, Candace, went missing on her way home from school. Her body was found six-and-a-half weeks later. I will always remember the darkness of that time and the searing pain of grief.

… we can't avoid our conflicts or the suffering in them.

The day her body was found, a man came to visit us. He introduced himself as "a parent of a murdered child" and began to describe the aftermath of violence. He told us that his life, after the murder of his daughter, had been destroyed and implied that ours was over as well.

Frightened, Cliff and I chose the word forgiveness for our situation, thinking it would somehow help us avoid the anger, bitterness, and "stuckness" of victimization.

Central to the experience of most crimes is the inherent conflict between the victim and offender who are involved in the act. It is not easy to resolve conflict at the best of times, much less around a violent crime. Because of the enormous fear around violence, we are inclined to contain the conflict and build thick, impenetrable walls between offenders and crime victims, hoping to keep them apart and eliminate the possibility of more harm.

If I've learned anything over these last 20 years, however, it's that we can't avoid our conflicts or the suffering in them. In fact, to avoid our conflicts is to make us vulnerable to perpetuating the issues that caused the pain in the first place.

I will go even further to say that I think God wants us to deal with our issues, and if we don't, the issue will present itself to us again and again in the most unexpected ways—ways that are stranger than fiction. Let me give you a few examples.

God's agenda

Approximately ten years ago I was in conflict with a woman on the east coast, a conflict that lasted at least two years over the theft of something I held dear. When the issue was resolved, I thought I wouldn't have to worry about her anymore or have to re-establish a relationship because I would never see her again.

… victim and offender are put together in places where they can't avoid each other …

Almost exactly a week to the day of that thought, I was sitting opposite the woman in a huge ballroom filled with about 500 guests, in Vancouver. I had been avoiding her all day at the conference and I know she was avoiding me, but circumstances beyond our control forced us to sit together.

I heaved a huge sigh of resignation, and leaned over and made amends. It wasn't easy.

It's never easy to make peace. But the bizarreness of the situation told me that God had an agenda in all of this and I needed to pay attention. If I didn't, this woman would most certainly pop up in Winnipeg the next weekend at another dinner. I wasn't about to have her ruin any other enjoyable evening!

Since I began my work with victims and offenders, I have noticed this same coincidence, where victim and offender are put together in places where they can't avoid each other, happening again and again.

In the case of a stranger assault, for example, a man raped a 17-year-old girl. Seven years later, while he is incarcerated, his mother dies. The funeral is held at the same place where the funeral of the young woman's mother is being held. The funeral director is forced to move one of the funerals to the next day to prevent the victim and offender meeting in the funeral home. What are the chances of that?

A few weeks ago, two families representing victim and offender sides were brought together for a parole hearing. That night they discovered they were staying in the same hotel. That's plausible enough since the hotel is close to the institution, but then, in a hotel of more than 200 suites they landed right across the hall from each other. What are the chances of that?

Over and over

I could go on and on. It's become obvious to me in my life and my work that there is an almost supernatural pull between people in conflict. It seems the issue needs to find resolution.

To make real peace, the victim and offender need to come together.

And if it isn't the actual offender in person, it will be the issue in some form or another that will present itself to the victim over and over again until it's resolved. I've had to make peace with the offender who murdered my daughter, because that person is in some ways now a member of my extended family (even though I still don't know who this person is, which is a hard concept to understand and even harder to deal with).

In my work we have witnessed many times the wonderful, divine miracle of forgiveness, when people are healed of their broken lives and broken relationships. This moment needs to be celebrated.

But God is also in the process, seemingly working overtime to bring people together so they have the opportunity to do the learnings they can do only with each other. To make real peace, the victim and offender need to come together.

The aftermath of our daughter's murder hasn't gone away. None of it. It remains a mystery that haunts us almost every day.

The pain comes and goes; the suffering of it is undeniable. Frankly, I don't think I can ever say that I welcome the pain, or relish it. But as I get older, I can thank God for the learnings.

The learnings give me the courage to facilitate meetings between offenders and victims so they can do their hard learnings in safe ways, and not at an inopportune time like some dinner among complete strangers.

Wilma L. Derksen is director of Victims' Voice, a program of Mennonite Central Committee Canada, and author of Have You Seen Candace? and Confronting the Horror—the Aftermath of Violence. She and her husband Cliff attend The Meeting Place, Winnipeg.

Originally published in the Mennonite Brethren Herald, March 17, 2006.




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