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How a Woman Learned to Forgive After a Car Accident Left Her a Quadriplegic, Killed Her Husband and Son

On 25 July 1987, our family was involved in a catastrophic automobile accident, and, as a result, I have no feeling from my chest down. My husband was killed; I lost a son. I was driving. My seven surviving children and I spent months in hospitals, to be reunited as a family again just before Christmas.

During this time I was faced with overwhelming decisions and problems. I must admit that forgiving myself was actually one of the easier challenges that I faced. I wasn't sure that I could face what lay ahead, especially trapped in a body that didn't work. I longed to be with the children, some of whom were also in critical condition. I longed to hold them, knowing how frightened and alone they must feel. I needed to draw strength from them. I wanted so desperately for John to still be with me, for I knew that together we could overcome anything. I fantasized that he would come through the door of my hospital room—hoping desperately that it would happen, yet knowing that it would never be.

I learned very quickly that the question "Why?" has no tangible answer. The only real answer to "Why?" is faith. We place our lives in the hands of the Lord, having faith that he knows what is best for us in the long run. I also had to accept that some things in this life simply cannot be changed. How many times I must have said to myself, "if only." If only I could relive a few seconds of my life, things would be so different—but life does not rewind so we can revise our parts, and dwelling on "whys" and "if onlys" is unhealthy.

"Whys" and "if onlys" keep us dwelling on regret so we cannot forgive ourselves and move forward in faith, prayerfully trusting in the Lord. The Lord, with His infinite love for us, will never leave us. I was able to forgive myself because I literally felt the Lord's kind, gentle arms around me during this time. I never had before, nor have I since, felt such an outpouring of love from the Lord. The car crash was not planned—it was an accident—so there was no real reason to blame myself. With the Lord's help, I knew that. My soul was touched, my spirit healed, and I came to feel at peace with our circumstance as it was.

Other seeming accidents—coincidences, providences—prepared us to survive this catastrophe. For instance, the last thing my husband and I had discussed, as I was dropping him off at the airport, was our new insurance policy. Had he paid the premium? I wondered. "Why don't we have it taken out as a monthly deduction," I suggested. "That way we won't even miss the money." He had paid the premium: $13.01, and that's all we ever paid. That $13.01 policy helped me to build a home that I can function in as a quadriplegic.

Other things for our benefit were also in place when the accident occurred. There was, for instance, a doctor in St. Louis, where we were hospitalized, the one pediatric orthopedic surgeon in a thousand who would even have tried to save my daughter's foot, the top of which had been severed. Others would have immediately amputated. He took muscle from her back and grafted it onto her foot. Because of his faith and skill, she is walking. He was only at that hospital for a few months. Was it chance that he was there? Was it chance that he came in several nights after the surgery to say, "I don't know why I did what I did. I hadn't gone in to do that procedure. I just did something very different from what I planned on." Was that an accident? I don't think so.

So many things were in place for us that I knew that the Lord loved us. Find Church members in St. Louis did for my children that which I could not do—sending cards, visiting, giving continuous care to the children day and night, housing and feeding relatives as they came to help put our lives back together. The hospital staff stood in awe as these people, who didn't even know our family, gave service in such an organized and loving manner.

Through priesthood blessings, circulation was restored to crushed legs that were scheduled to be immediately amputated and a comatose child was blessed to regain consciousness and productivity at the time lifetime custodial care in a nursing home was being discussed. A beautiful woman trained as a nurse practitioner and with a master's degree in neurological nursing joined our family, changing her life so ours could be better. She works as a director of nursing at a state facility during the days and provides love, support, and care for the family in the evenings. It is not chance that she is with us. How could I not forgive myself? To fail to so so would jeopardize the future of my family.

Many who are victims of natural consequences struggle not only to forgive themselves but to forgive God. Was our accident the Lord's fault? I don't believe he caused it, but surely he could have stopped it from happening. Every prayer I remember offering throughout my married life had included the plea that my husband John and I would remain together to rear our children. It frightened me deeply to think of being the sole person responsible for many children. Very little in life equals the thrill of holding a newborn baby, and it is a joy to watch children grow and learn. But it is hard to deal with them alone. John and I were supposed to do that together. In fact, I had envisioned that after the last child went away from home, my husband might then have a heart attack—perhaps even as she walked out the door. I felt certain that the Lord would spare him until then. Well, He didn't. Does that mean that my prayers weren't answered, or that the Lord doesn't love me and my family? I don't think so. It means that we are to start from zero again and work out a new life plan. We switch to Plan B. I guess I am glad we have an alphabet with 26 letters so that we can have several other plans to follow. I am at Plan F going on G right now!

The next person I had to forgive was my husband. It really wasn't fair for him to check out early. In the hospital the day of the accident, I had a dream vision—I struggle to describe it—an insight, revelation, life-beyond-life experience, impression. I was dressed in a beautiful, white, flowing dress, simple in design yet very elegant. John was in white pants, shirt, and tie. I was ascending, he was descending, both of us with arms outstretched toward the other. We almost clasped hands, but before we touched, he told me, "No, you can't come now. You have to go back." Although he spoke the words, I knew that we both had made the decision.

Now, on a good day, I feel Christian-spirited and can forgive him for leaving. I can even see the wisdom in my staying. My soul is filled with benevolence. But, on a bad day, I get really agitated with the whole situation. (Perhaps that's why he chooses to come only on good days.) He chooses to be present—I feel his spirit—at baptisms, confirmations, and weddings. He is with me when I talk in church. He's there for nice times. His spirit touches my spirit, say, during an opening song in church, and I find myself unexpectedly in tears. People around me are baffled, but the kids look down the row to where my wheelchair is parked in the aisle and murmur, "He is here again, and she has lost it!"

These moments are sweet but also frustrating. It is really unfair. I don't know why he can't come also on days when the kids are misbehaving. Why is he never there when I would like to paste them against the wall, and I can't? I have thought of one way to involve John, however. I sometimes say to the children, "You should always try to do the right things and never place yourself in a compromising situation. You never know when your father may be at your side." They usually reply, "Right, Mom!" But it's worth a try. Someday it may help them out of a tight spot. Maybe if I were a little less frustrated, he would come and help during the trying times. Or maybe I haven't experienced the worst times, and he is saving himself for when I have run my course and am on Plan Z . . . I hope not.

So, when all has been said and done, am I really capable of forgiving? Are any of us? I think so. I feel I have forgiven John, but I am still overwhelmed with frustration at times. And frustration is not the same as anger. I don't hold the Lord accountable. I don't hold myself accountable. If I did, I would draw others into my suffering and despair. I will not let my children suffer because I am not willing to forgive myself and get on with life.

Does the Lord believe we are capable of forgiving? At least eighty-two scriptures deal with forgiveness. To give it so much mention, the Lord must know it's not easy. Doctrine and Covenants 98:40 specifies that we should forgive seventy times seven, or four hundred and ninety times. That's a lot. In my youth, I didn't think I would ever need to forgive anyone that many times. But, as a mother with children between the ages of four and nineteen, I gained a new perspective. Before they are four, children are still cute, but there are fifteen uncute years between four and nineteen. Let's be very conservative: if you forgive a child only once a day, you have forgiven him or her fifty-four hundred times. And that is only if you get Mother's Day and your birthday off. I'm not skipping Christmas because we all know that Christmas can be extremely stressful. I have seven children; my forgiveness-once-a-day tallies at forty-three thousand times. These maybe small matters most of the time, but holding on to anger or frustration taints your present and shapes your future.

No matter what your circumstances, you cannot escape opportunities to forgive and be forgiven in both large and small matters. How you deal with that fact colors the quality of your everyday life. You must forgive yourself for yelling at your children for spilling milk. You must forgive yourself for having a confrontation with your neighbor. You must forgive yourself for feeling angry at your employer or for not seeing eye-to-eye with your spouse. Failing to forgive may handicap us in important ways. When we are filled with anger and frustration, the Holy Ghost cannot be with us. As much as the Lord would like to help us, he cannot, for the circuit between earth and heaven is full of emotional static.

Let's consider handicaps. I have a handicap that is visible. I am considered a quadriplegic. I have no feeling from my chest down. When people first see me in a wheelchair, the obvious is suspected—I can't walk. As we get to know each other better, they learn that the disability includes much more than just being unable to walk. For instance, if I do not shift my weight occasionally as I sit in the wheelchair, I can very easily develop pressure sores that require months to heal because of poor circulation. I have no conception of hot and cold and consequently can burn myself without realizing it. I put my elbow on a hot burner one day, and the next morning I woke up to find an ugly burn—almost to the bone. As I looked at it, I thought, "That must really hurt!" The examples could go on and on.

Just as I have learned alternate ways to function, such as driving with hand controls, your spirit also will change to accommodate a "hidden handicap," and your whole way of dealing with life can change. The word adversity is very close to the word adversary. The adversary would certainly like to win when we are dealing with adversity. By not forgiving, we are unconsciously inviting the adversary into our lives. It is very easy to blame the Lord when things don't go right in our lives, just as it is easy to blame others for our unhappiness. Our happiness and well-being are our individual responsibility. The Lord has given us the instruction booklet and the tools with which to attain happiness—the attainment is up to us.

By harboring resentment or hurt, you place a handicap on your spirit. You leave your soul open for other problems, to other hurts, to other miseries, to other pain that you cannot even imagine. These emotional handicaps can be hidden to you, but they can affect many areas of your life. They can cause depression, physical illness, and spiritual illness. They can interfere with interpersonal relationships or self-esteem. When your spirit is afflicted with the disease of not forgiving, your spirit accommodates to protect itself, and your whole personality and lifestyle can change in ways you would not consciously choose. Bitterness and anger can easily replace charity.

I have a frustrating physical handicap, but I choose not to have a hidden spiritual handicap. By choosing to forgive myself and others, I am assuring that my spirit will not suffer.

Lead image from Getty Images

These essays, selected from those presented at the 1992 Women's Conference, address such contemporary and diverse concerns as coping with rebellious children, dealing with infertility, struggling to preserve harmony with family members who have chosen not to be active in the Church, balancing family responsibilities against the demands of a career, being single in a family-oriented church, serving despite depleted reserves of energy and resources, and finding personal fulfillment.

Like the conference, sponsored by Brigham Young University and the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this volume explores the many ways the Savior can nurture, bless, and strengthen those who call upon him, the many ways our joy can be made more abundant by drawing upon his strength.

Comments and feedback can be sent to feedback@ldsliving.com