When half his family was killed in a drunk-driving accident, Chris Williams made the most important decision of his life: to forgive. The results impacted him, his family, the driver, and their whole community. This is his story. You can also watch Chris's story as told in the new movie Just Let Go. Now available on DVD at Deseret Book stores and deseretbook.com.
On February 9, 2007, I, my wife, and our three youngest children went out for dessert while our oldest was out with friends. As we left to return home, I don’t recall feeling any prompting to adjust our travel in some way, to spend a few more seconds at a stop sign, to take an alternate route, or to not go out that night. But in an instant, our lives were changed forever.
Michelle and I both saw a pair of headlights appear at the top of the hill in front of us, moving at an unbelievably high speed and already crossing the median. It was on a direct collision course with our car. “Chris!” Michelle shouted. I attempted to swerve out of the way but to no avail. The vehicle T-boned our own car with a force so violent and tremendous that the impact stopped our car from going downhill and pushed it back uphill. The sound of the car hitting ours was a sickening, dense, crushing thud of metal on metal—a quick, catastrophic, singular sound of devastation.
Then it was quiet. There was no sound from anyone in the car. I could see Michelle motionless and curled up in a fetal position on the passenger chair, her hair falling over her face so that I couldn’t see it. At that instant, I knew she was gone. In my confused state of shock, still struggling to comprehend what had just happened, that thought was so clear and definitive. It didn’t come from deductive reasoning, it was just pure knowledge of a terrible reality—she was gone. My thoughts raced to my children in the backseat: Were they okay?
Despite the excruciating pain, I struggled to turn my head, frantically trying to move so I could check on the condition of my children. Ben was sitting directly behind Michelle, upright in his seat and with his head resting against the imploded car door. Once again I experienced the same type of immediate understanding regarding his condition, that he was gone. I just felt it. I struggled to turn further to see Anna, who was sitting in the middle backseat. She was sitting upright but leaning slightly forward, her hair draped over her face. She looked like she had just fallen asleep. But before I could even begin to think that she might be okay, I once again knew that she too was gone. With that final revelation as to their deaths, I also knew that was the extent—I couldn’t see Sam, nor could I hear him, but I felt an assurance that he was going to make it. As I stopped straining to see into the back seat, I turned my head toward Michelle and saw her chest sink down. She hadn’t been breathing, but that was it, one final exhale. And then I thought of our unborn baby.
What I was witnessing was absolutely unreal. I couldn’t take it anymore. I turned my head forward and closed my eyes. I was ready for death. I tried to will myself to pass out; I wanted to succumb to the process of having my spirit leave my body. From deep inside my body came a sound of excruciating anguish and pain, of body and spirit being crushed.
It was more profound than just feeling helpless or powerless or feeling physical pain. As I struggled to make it stop, I opened my eyes and turned to look out the driver’s side window. I saw the car that had just hit us resting upside down on its roof about 50 feet from my car. Suddenly an immense peace and silence filled the inside of the vehicle, my soul, and my thoughts.
I had no idea who had just hit us, and my mind didn’t think to consider if they were all right or not or what circumstances might have caused them to cross the median and strike us. I simply looked at the car in silence. My thoughts went quiet, I felt at peace, and then I heard a voice that was not my own in my mind as clearly as if it had come from someone seated next to me. It wasn’t a peaceful, whispered voice, nor was it the still, small prompting of the Spirit; it was straightforward and filled with power, and the voice said, “Let it go!”
I fixed my eyes on the overturned car. I immediately felt an enabling power beyond my own, healing and enlarging my crushed soul. I knew exactly what I had to do and exactly what those three words meant. Regardless of whoever had been driving the other car and regardless of whatever the circumstances behind this tragedy were, this was not my burden to carry. I was commanded in no uncertain terms not to try to pick it up.
I committed as I sat in that driver’s seat—looking at the car that had just killed Michelle, my wife of almost 20 years; our unborn baby, William; my 11-year-old son, Benjamin; and my 9-year-old daughter, Anna—to let it go, all of it, holding nothing back. I knew who should carry that burden: He who had already endured the soul-crushing press of the pains of all men, including this burden, so that I would not have to bear my infinitely miniscule portion of what He bore. In that instant of grace and revelation, I knew that my Savior lived and that He was immediately present with me in my time of greatest need.
While I lay on a gurney at the hospital, James Wood, my stake president and friend, informed me that our car had been hit by a 17-year-old boy who had been drinking. “Is he all right?” I asked. James said that the boy hadn’t sustained any physical injury. I then asked James if he would please have the young man’s name placed on the temple prayer roll.
As I lay on that gurney I could feel the love the Savior had for that teenage boy. It was a soul-transforming and refining experience. I had no idea who the teenager was, but it didn’t matter. All I felt in that moment was that the Savior had succored me, anxious to heal and bind up rather than have this crash tear up our families and the community.
Another friend came near to where I lay. I looked at him as earnestly as I could and said, “We have to forgive him.” I felt no anger, no desire for retribution or justice, no questioning as to why this had happened; just an earnest desire to say the things the Savior would say, extending the same tokens of mercy and love that He always extends.
Surviving the First Few Days
The following day, the x-rays showed that I had sustained a broken rib on my right side and nothing else, no indications of internal bleeding or organ damage. The injuries my family sustained were so catastrophic, and all I have is a broken rib? I thought. As I marveled at the lack of internal damage, I had an impression that I had been preserved, quite miraculously, so I could be with 14-year-old Michael and 6-year-old Sam while Michelle was with Ben and Anna. I immediately wanted out of the ICU. I could no longer bear being separated from Michael and Sam.
We entered the children’s ICU, and I was taken to the bed where Sam lay. I was shocked to see his condition. Even though I had felt peace that he was going to be all right, I was told he was in critical condition. He had suffered a serious brain injury, and he was not improving.
I quickly arranged to give him a blessing of health, accompanied by my dad and Michelle’s father. As we laid our hands on his head, a surge of peace and confidence filled my soul as he was commanded to be healed. I blessed him that he would make a full recovery. It wasn’t wishful thinking on my part; I knew exactly what the Savior wanted me to say, and I felt I said what he would have said had He been there in person.
After a sleepless night wandering the halls of the hospital, I returned to check on Michael and Sam. As I entered the ICU, I noticed it was almost 8:00 in the morning. Michael was awake, and I asked him if he would like to go to church. When Michael responded by saying, “Yeah, I really want to go to our church,” I realized he wanted to attend the ward we normally attended, which started at 9:00 a.m. in the building near our home, and not the one at the chapel in the hospital. I knew he was right; we needed to attend church with our neighbors and friends.
With the meeting already in progress when we arrived, I didn’t even think about going onto the stand, where I usually sat as bishop. We stopped just outside the chapel doors, which were propped open. As people saw Michael and me, they started alerting others around them, and soon everyone seemed to be looking toward us. I knew there were always vacant seats in the front pews, so I quickly backed out of the overflow area and walked down the hall toward the door that entered into the front of the chapel. I opened it slightly to peer inside and saw the entire row of church leaders on the stand looking right at me. James Wood was there, and he motioned for me to sit by him on the stand. As I opened the door fully and entered the chapel, I was overcome by the powerful spirit that I felt.
I sat down by James and looked into the congregation and there, seated in the middle of a pew surrounded by all of his friends, was Michael. I felt a powerful assurance that he was going to make it through this trial.
By the end of the meeting I wanted to publicly share my recent experiences of the grace and mercy I had felt. I arose and declared my personal witness of the plan of happiness, that because Michelle and I had been married for eternity by one who was authorized to make that kind of marriage contract, I knew I would be with her again.
What I had said as I lay on the gurney about forgiving the teenage driver had been reported to the media, and it was impacting the entire community, even in the face of the terrible circumstances. The media interest in my family’s tragedy along with the expression of unconditional forgiveness had grown fairly intense. On Monday morning we determined that the best way to address the various media requests would be to organize a press conference.
As we exited the hospital parking garage that afternoon to attend it, I asked my mother for a pad and pencil and began to quickly write down some thoughts in a hurried attempt to come up with some kind of statement to make. The closer we got to my home, the more I panicked. Minutes before the press conference was supposed to start, I said a prayer asking that whatever I said could be a help and a blessing to others. Immediately I knew what I had to say, and it wasn’t anything that I had prepared. It was a short and simple expression of what the Savior wanted me to say:
This truly is a bitter cup that my family has been asked to partake of, but with such a miraculous outpouring of love and prayer from the community, I know that it will all be all right one day.
On behalf of my sweet wife, our children, and my extended family, we would invite you if you are in a position to extend a single act of kindness, a token of mercy, or an expression of forgiveness. Would you do it by Valentine’s Day and then, if you feel to do so, write that experience down and share it with my two surviving boys by sending it to the address that the radio and TV outlets will provide. I can think of no greater valentine that you could give to someone, or that my sons and I could present to my sweetheart, than that.
May God bless every individual one of you for your goodness. Thank you.
When I made the initial request at the press conference, I had no idea of the responses that simple challenge would create. I received thousands of letters and e-mails from all over the world describing acts of kindness, mercy, and charity that were offered. Hundreds contained this line of reasoning: “If you can forgive someone for doing that to your family, certainly I can forgive,” and then they would describe to me what they were newly committed to letting go of.
Connecting with Cameron
Eventually I learned that the name of the teenage driver was Cameron White. As I came to learn of him, I felt the immense, personal love the Savior had for him. I had felt of Christ’s mercy, I had felt of His concern, and I had heard the call for forgiveness, mercy, and healing, but I had not thought of the earnest desire He had for His son Cameron White to come home. As I spoke of Cameron, he was no longer “the teenage boy that had caused this to happen”; he became Cameron White, my brother.
The first time I saw him was four months after the accident, at his certification hearing. Cameron, wearing an orange jumpsuit, slowly entered the courtroom and sat at the defendant’s table. The proceedings began and, amidst the initial legal motions, he and I shared a quiet, personal moment when our eyes met and he mouthed the words “I’m sorry” to me. I managed a half-smile to my face as I nodded to him in acknowledgment. I had wondered what emotions I would feel when I first saw him and how I would react. I once again felt the Savior’s love for him and his family.
As time wore on, I continued to struggle with the despair and loneliness that was left in my life, but I knew where to turn. In prayer with my Heavenly Father, I would vent my frustrations and anger, “wrestling with the Lord” as it were, and then I would be greatly humbled as I was reminded of my Savior, Jesus Christ. Then I could ponder His life, His example, His patience and long-suffering, and finally feel a greater strength to stay true to the commitment I had made and move forward.
Almost two years after the accident, I received a call from a counselor at the Wasatch Youth Center, a juvenile detention facility. She had been working with Cameron and wondered if I would be willing to assist her in helping him more fully appreciate the impact that the deaths of Michelle, Ben, and Anna had had on the lives of my family. She told me that Cameron had prepared some questions for me and asked if I would be willing to meet with him to answer them in person. I agreed.
A date was set for the meeting, and I began to mentally prepare myself for the visit. In an effort to organize my thoughts and be prepared with something to say, I started to write down how the crash had impacted my life. I struggled to really capture something that I could share with him and I felt the need, given my inability to express my feelings, to fast and pray for greater inspiration.
After checking in at the desk, I entered a small reception area where I awaited the counselor. A large, thick security door opened, and she stepped forward into the waiting area, greeting me warmly and thanking me for being so willing to come and help. As we walked toward the room where I would meet Cameron, my mind was quieted and I felt a growing sense of considerable peace; I knew that the counselor and I were not walking alone. She quickly turned into a small conference room where Cameron was seated, waiting for us to arrive.
We sat down across from each other, and Cameron unfolded a piece of paper and began to ask about my life since the accident, how it had affected me, my sons, and my extended family. He wanted to know more about Ben, Anna, and Michelle to help him know them and appreciate who they were. I don’t know what I said, only that I felt calm as I answered each question as directly and concisely as I could.
Cameron then dropped the paper, looked directly into my eyes, and asked, “After all that I’ve done to your family, how is it that you were able to forgive me?”
I leaned forward and said, “If there is anything you have seen me do, or heard me say, or have read about me regarding forgiveness, you should know that it was merely the Savior working through me.” The Spirit that filled that room was profound as it pierced both of our hearts with an eternal truth: we are loved by the pure love of Jesus Christ, and He wants us to fulfill our potential.
Later on there were talks to produce a Mormon Messages video about my experiences. We discussed the story’s potential to bless the lives of others and thought that early 2010 might be a good time to move forward with it. As we refined the format of the message, though, we realized we wanted Cameron to be a part of the project. Because of the necessary restrictions imposed at the detention facility, none of us could figure out how to finagle it. However, a few days later, I was notified by the parole board that Cameron would be allowed to stay at his home during the final months of his sentence in order to give him the best opportunity to move forward in his life. I explained my desire for him to be part of a Mormon Message and was told that they were fine with it if Cameron wanted to participate. It had been nearly one year since Cameron and I had last spoken with each other. I was anxious to see him again and to express my love and concern for him.
When I saw him that day, I immediately noted that he looked much happier and hopeful than he had the last time I had seen him. I knew he was being healed in a miraculous way, and I was filled with an immense satisfaction of being a witness to the Savior’s love in his life. We spoke as brothers for more than an hour while we were filmed.
I shared with Cameron how my life had changed since we had last met, reciting many of the things I had pondered. He spoke of what he was currently pursuing in his life with work and schooling; he was also moving forward from that tragic night. I felt such a remarkable sense of peace as we talked; it was the kind of scene that surely brought a smile to our Father in Heaven’s face as He watched two of his sons striving to follow the Savior in deed.
So often in my life I’ve tried to direct or rush the Savior into producing a blessing or the final outcome during a trial. Like so many things of worth, outcomes take time to materialize—sometimes years and years. As Cameron and I talked together on the bench, there was one thing I could see that had changed dramatically in the few years since the crash: my patience with the timing of the Savior’s plan for me. I could see that I had been blessed with a greater capability to know that if my prayers weren’t being answered in the way I expected, they would be answered in a much better way, and it would be worth the wait.
His invitation is as urgently needed today for so many, as it was when he taught, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls” (Matthew 11:28–29). He is everything, and I am nothing, and yet “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13).
This is my experience with forgiveness, letting go, moving forward, and being healed.
What burden could you lay at the Lord’s feet, today, that He might be allowed to work miracles in your life?
Chris Williams has since remarried to a young widow named Mikkel Jones, who also had two young children. Together, they have been blessed with two additional daughters. He and his family currently reside in Salt Lake City. You can read the full story of Chris’s journey in his book, Let It Go, or watch the riveting story on the new DVD Just Let Go. Both available through Deseret Book.
In the face of tragedy, Chris Williams made the most important decision of his life. On a cold night in 2007, a devoted father of four and a seventeen-year-old drunk driver both received life sentences. In one violent, devastating instant, each face a drastically different future. But as Chris Williams sat in a demolished vehicle, realizing that his wife, unborn baby, nine-year-old daughter, and eleven-year-old son had just been killed, he committed to do something extraordinary: he would forgive. Chris Williams' story is the cinematic tale of how someone can forgive despite the desire for revenge that surfaces within the dark corners of the human heart—showing the world that hope, love and forgiveness can overcome all when you just let go.
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Forgiveness Challenge
- "Rise and Fall" music video from Ryan Innes (NBC's The Voice)