Forgiving the drunk driver who killed her daughter is an on-going journey
By Velma Goertzen as told to Connie Faber
Twenty-six years ago this Easter my 21-year-old daughter and I sang Handel’s “Messiah” with the Hutchinson (Kan.) Oratorio Society. Two weeks later a drunk driver killed my loving Beth. When I remember that day, the pain of her loss is as fresh as it was then.
My husband, Stan, died suddenly of a heart attack when Beth was 10 and her brother, Kerry, was 8. My children and I became a close-knit team. Beth was my confidant and friend. She never sat still and was a good athlete who loved sports. She loved music and cats. She was loyal to her family and interested in family history. Beth was a good listener and looked out for those who weren’t popular, were struggling or needed a friend.
After graduating from high school, Beth attended Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind., for one year. There she met Rick Battis, and they were married on her daddy’s birthday—July 23, 1983. That was Beth’s way of having her daddy at her wedding.
After they were married, Beth and Rick worked in Hutchinson, Kan., but lived in nearby Buhler, right across from Buhler MB Church. They were youth sponsors and hosted their Sunday school class in their home because there wasn’t room in the church.
Beth and Rick loved working with teenagers and felt God calling them to fulltime ministry in Christian camping. So in the spring of 1985 they were preparing to move to Wisconsin where they would spend one year as interns at Camp Forest Springs.
Beth was seeing a doctor in Wichita, Kan., for help with her food allergies. Her last appointment with Dr. Hugh Riordan was the evening of April 18, 1985. As he told Beth goodbye, Dr. Riordan said, “Go and have a good life.” A half-hour later as Rick and Beth were traveling on an elevated stretch of I-35 in Wichita, their car was hit head-on by a young man driving the wrong way up the off ramp. One instant she was talking, making plans and going on with life and the next minute Beth was in heaven.
After the accident, I lived in a fog for a month or so. As I was coming out of that daze a friend said to me, “I don’t know how you can ever forgive him.” I was so overwhelmed with grief and loss that the thought of forgiving the man who killed Beth hadn’t even crossed my mind. Beth was gone—that’s all that mattered.
When I lost Beth I had to redefine my faith. Do I really believe all the things I’ve said about God? How could the accident really be God’s will for Beth? I finally concluded that I could accept that God allowed Beth to die, but it may not have been his perfect will for her.
As I came out of that deep grief four or five months later, I wanted to know about the guy that killed my Beth. I visited the Sedgwick County Courthouse and the office of the judge assigned to the case. I learned that on the day Beth was killed the driver had been stopped three or four times that morning for drunk driving, and he kept driving. Between the date she was killed and his first court date the driver had three more DUIs.
I was angry. “Why haven’t you picked him up?” I asked. “He killed my daughter.”
I was told a warrant was out for his arrest and that the police knew where he lived. “We’ll get to him someday,” they said. This made me very angry. I haunted that judge’s office. Finally they suggested I visit a mediation service run by the General Conference Mennonite Church (now Mennonite Church USA). I think they were afraid of what I would do. Evidently my anger was pretty bad.
Then one Monday morning when Rick and I went to the judge’s office we learned that the driver was in the midst of his court hearing. Today they would tell the victim’s family about a hearing, but they didn’t do that then. God had us there at just the right moment.
That morning I looked into the face of the man who killed my daughter and listened to him defiantly say, “I didn’t do it. I don’t remember doing this.” I was overwhelmed. How could I forgive him? How could I forgive when he doesn’t acknowledge what he did?
This started my battle of forgiving and taking it back; forgiving and taking it back. Two verses became very meaningful to me. Colossians 3:13 says to “forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Romans 12:19 says, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.”
I had to forgive the young man who drove drunk so that God could heal me and I could move on. But I struggled a long, long time. I withdrew from people because they were trying to move me along and I wasn’t ready. It was a lonely, painfully long journey.
Finally I gave the fight to God and asked him to show me how to forgive. “You know how hard I struggle to forgive,” I told God, “but it’s in your hands.” I wrote a prayer that I repeated often as I struggled to forgive:
“Lord, I can’t do this on my own. The decision to forgive is a daily struggle. Sometimes my blame and anger fuel me, and I keep fanning the flames with more and more negative thoughts. Right now, I surrender my thoughts to you. Please take these angry, bitter feelings of blame and teach me to replace them with your Word, with prayer, with time spent helping others and with remembrances of your forgiveness. I choose to trust you to guide me through this process. Amen.”
One of the most powerful lessons I learned during this time was that you know you’ve truly forgiven when you begin to pray for someone and wish him well. So I began to pray for the driver. My prayers were pretty feeble at first. But I did pray for him, and I still pray for him.
I have had no contact with the driver. I’ve never heard an “I’m sorry.” I have wished for a letter or some acknowledgement, but I don’t expect that anymore. The driver served a total of maybe two years in prison. Today he would have been given a tougher sentence. The “impact statement” that family members can make now wasn’t available to us then. Was justice done? No, but it is out of my hands.
One of the things that helped me heal was joining The Compassionate Friends, an organization that provides grief support after the death of a child. Going through this grief with other families—mostly Christian families—was very important to my healing.
The Compassionate Friends is not a Christian organization, and I thought for many years that local churches need a grief support ministry. Three years ago we started GriefShare, a Christian grief recovery support group, in our church. We don’t know why God asks us to endure hard things. But as a GriefShare leader I’m doing something with my grief other than just living with it. I can help someone walk this road.
I’ve learned a lot about grief and forgiving. I’m still learning. I always use the words, “You find a new normal.” I’ve learned that there is no such thing as getting over the death of someone you love. You can’t get over that love. You can’t forget it.
I know now that forgiveness is not a one-time thing, and I continue to forgive the man who murdered my daughter by his choice to drink and drive. I praise God for being so good. He has healed my heart and my family’s heart.
Velma Goertzen lives in Inman, Kan., and attends Buhler (Kan.) MB Church. She is a registered nurse and recently retired after working 20 years for Health-E-Quip, a home medical equipment service company in Hutchinson, Kan. She has served as a Medicare advocate, making numerous trips to Washington, D.C.