Could I Learn to Forgive?

“Could I Learn to Forgive?” Ensign, July 2001, 66–68

Could I Learn to Forgive?

My world was turned upside down when my mother was killed. Would I ever feel peace again?

When I was 21 years old, my mother was killed by a drunk driver. I thought there would be no end to my grief. But as more details emerged about the drunk driver, Mr. Olsen,* my grief turned to anger. Mr. Olsen had been involved in two other alcohol-related accidents previous to the one involving my mother. His driver’s license had been revoked, but he continued to drink and drive anyway. In fact, when he ran over my mother, he was so intoxicated he didn’t even realize he had hit and killed someone. I wondered, Was he also unaware that she was a single parent and that losing her was like having both our mother and father taken away from my two brothers and me all at once? And did Mr. Olsen have any idea how devastated the children in my mother’s kindergarten class were when they were told that Ms. Roy would never be coming back? I allowed my hostility to grow inside me, and I vowed I would never forgive this man for what he had done.

In addition to the bitterness I felt toward Mr. Olsen, I also harbored potent feelings of anger at myself. The last time I had seen Mom, less than an hour before the accident, I had behaved badly toward her. I was about to leave for work when Mom begged me to sit for just a minute to talk. I rolled my eyes and begrudgingly plopped into a chair at the kitchen table. She reached over to take my hand, but I snatched it away and folded my arms in defiance.

Mom began, as usual, by saying how much she loved me and how worried she was about me. I wasn’t eating right; I wasn’t sleeping enough; I was taking too many classes at school and working too many hours at my job.

Deep down I knew Mom was right; I just wasn’t ready to admit what a wrong turn my life had taken. Among other things, in the years following high school graduation I had quit going to church and started partying.

After listening to Mom for a few minutes, I stood up and began yelling that I was tired of her worrying and nagging and sick to death of her “talks.” I was fine! I could take care of myself! I stomped out of the house toward my car. Mom followed, pleading with me to “Please, just listen!” I jumped into my car and hurriedly backed out of the driveway. She just stood there with a pained look on her face that I tried to ignore. As I drove away, she forced a smile, waved, then began blowing kisses the way she always did when my brothers and I left the house.

That is the last memory I have of my mom alive. My younger brother, Joe, who was home that day, said that not long after I had stormed out of the house, Mom came in and asked if he wanted to go to the store with her to buy a gallon of milk. He said no. She left, and less than an hour later, there was a knock at the front door. Joe opened it to find a man standing there, asking for a picture of Mom to see if she was the woman who had just been killed in a car accident down the street from our house.

After Mom’s death, as hard as I tried, I could find no peace, no solace, no answers in a world that had suddenly been turned upside down. Eventually I realized that even though I had turned my back on all that I knew to be true, I couldn’t erase the memory of the strength, guidance, and comfort the gospel can provide. I wanted and needed that back in my life.

But was it too late? I had been deliberately rebellious. Racked with shame and guilt, in anguish I prayed, begging for forgiveness. Soon I realized that Heavenly Father was the same kind of parent my mother had been: full of love and quick to hear my cries, even though I felt undeserving of both. I knew I could sob to my Heavenly Father the way I used to cry on my mom’s shoulder, secure in the knowledge that she would somehow make it all better.

I met with my bishop many times in the months that followed. One night as I left the bishop’s office, so happy to finally feel the heavy weight of my sins beginning to lift, I had a startling realization: Did I wish that the man who killed my mother would suffer and be punished forever for his sins while I was forgiven for mine? And could I really expect to be forgiven if I was unwilling to forgive him? Mr. Olsen hadn’t meant to kill Mom. The more the truth of these things haunted me, the more I realized that the Spirit of the Lord was directing me to do something.

I made some telephone calls and found out when Mr. Olsen’s day of sentencing was scheduled. On the appointed day, nervous and shaking, I drove to the courthouse. As I prayed for strength, I wondered what Mom would feel if she were to see him in the courtroom. As I tried to picture this, I could only visualize Mom as radiant and happy, completely free of anger. It was clear to me that malice can slow or stop our eternal progression and separate us from the love of our Father in Heaven and the Savior. I knew more than ever that forgiveness was the key to the peace I so desperately craved.

I was shaking so badly by the time I reached the courthouse that I could hardly walk. As I approached Mr. Olsen and his lawyer outside the courtroom, I was caught off guard by Mr. Olsen’s appearance. In my mind I had made him into a monster. But standing before me was no monster, only an aged, frail man wearing a tired, beaten-down expression. As deep as my despair had been after Mom’s death, I realized Mr. Olsen’s was every bit as deep. His watery eyes were bloodshot; his shoulders drooped. While I had a testimony of the Savior and a sure knowledge that I was deeply loved by Him who has the power to right all wrongs, Mr. Olsen looked utterly alone in his suffering. How tragic that this child of God probably had no idea of his divine worth or Heavenly Father’s wondrous plan. I was suddenly able to feel compassion for him as it occurred to me how much we had in common. Mr. Olsen and I were both so in need of mercy, forgiveness, and the peace of mind that comes from knowing we can be forgiven. Our very lives depended upon it.

As I introduced myself to Mr. Olsen, his attorney’s eyes grew wide and he looked afraid of what I may say or do to his client. Not wanting him to worry, I quickly reached over and took Mr. Olsen’s hand. With strength and clarity I said, “Mr. Olsen, for what it’s worth, I want you to know I forgive you.” The words caught in my throat for a second as I realized how much I really meant what I was saying.

Mr. Olsen’s mouth fell open and he looked at me, stunned. He did not say anything in response, but as I released his hand and turned away, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and relief. I knew my Father in Heaven was pleased with what I had done.

I later had the privilege of serving in the Tokyo North Japan Mission. I felt the joy of teaching the wonderful people of Japan about a Savior who was human and knows all the challenges we will experience in mortality. He and Heavenly Father are always ready to catch us when we feel ourselves falling, ready to help us down a road that will lead us to new levels of understanding. We’re here on earth to learn difficult lessons, and our Heavenly Father and Savior will never abandon us. Their desire is to help us come unto Them and become more like Them.

After my mission, I married a wonderful young man in the Salt Lake Temple. We have been blessed with two lovely daughters. I know that the blessing of forgiveness and the Savior’s suffering on my behalf have enabled me to experience this joy.

I think often not only about Mom but also about Mr. Olsen. My heart still hurts for the man I regretfully once vowed never to forgive. Now I hope missionaries will find him and teach him about all the miraculous, joyous blessings that await us through the love and sacrifice of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Forgiveness Brings Peace

President Spencer W. Kimball

“It can be done. Man can conquer self. Man can overcome. Man can forgive all who have trespassed against him and go on to receive peace in this life and eternal life in the world to come.”
President Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985), The Miracle of Forgiveness (1969), 300; emphasis in original.

  • Name has been changed.

  • Reneé Roy Harding is a member of the Sugar Land First Ward, Houston South Texas Stake.

Illustrated by Sam Lawlor