The tragedy that broke the heart of a nation has led one mother from her journey of suffering for the loss of her child to what many consider unthinkable — forgiveness of the one who had taken so much from her.
Jennifer Hubbard’s 6-year-old daughter, Catherine, was one of the 20 students and 6 teachers who were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, nine years ago this month (Dec. 14, 2012). In one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history, the 20-year-old shooter ended his rampage by killing himself outside one of the classrooms.
The unimaginable horror of the tragedy and the raw emotion of losing her red-haired kindergartener caused virtually everything in Hubbard’s life to crumble around her.
Like parents of the other 19 students who never returned home from Sandy Hook, Hubbard found it difficult to consider recovery and healing. Still, she had to move forward to nurture Catherine’s second-grade brother, Freddy, who was also grieving, and to fulfill her pledge to make something positive out of the tragedy.
“On a purely human level, it is impossible to imagine being able to heal from the devastation of kneeling on the frozen earth beside your baby’s grave,” according to Hubbard. Relying on her Catholic faith and an outpouring of donations from supporters across the country, Hubbard slowly was able to grapple with her unthinkable pain and eventually to consider forgiveness.
“Surrendering debts takes time and does not mean forgetting,” she recently explained. “Forgetting would return us to where we started. … Forgiveness releases another from the debt you feel owed and gives your heart permission to heal rather than keep score and has more to do with us than them.”
Before Catherine died, Hubbard says, she could not understand people forgiving those who had inflicted unthinkable pain upon them. But now, by practicing forgiveness herself, she says she is able to experience peace and personal tranquility.
“Forgiveness is where we are changed, both in forgiving those who have launched assaults and in forgiving ourselves,” Hubbard writes in her recently published book Finding Sanctuary: How the Wild Work of Peace Restored the Heart of a Sandy Hook Mother. Each chapter in the book is dedicated to one step in Hubbard’s journey toward “wholeness” along with reflection questions and action steps for application in the reader’s own life.
Through her story, Hubbard shows readers how they can embrace grief and vulnerability to help heal their heart. As Fr. Peter John Cameron, O.P., writes in the book’s Forward: “Jennifer Hubbard’s achingly beautiful book takes us to the heart of horror and leads us out to an otherwise unimaginable hope.”
Catherine’s memory is kept alive in Newtown by donations from across that country that led to the creation of the Catherine Violet Hubbard Animal Sanctuary that provides learning opportunities related to all the things Catherine loved—bugs, birds, pets, farm animals and nature. Hubbard also does that through speaking, including radio interviews and appearances on national television news shows.
With Thanksgiving now under our belt and Christmas already being unwrapped, readers of the New York Times are being encouraged to make forgiveness an ongoing part of their holiday tradition.
An article in the Nov. 24 edition features Dr. Robert Enright and explains why forgiveness could be anyone’s “2021 holiday miracle.” The article, “This Thanksgiving, Please Pass the Forgiveness,” was written by four-time New York Times bestselling author Kelly Corrigan who is also host of the popular interview series Tell Me More on PBS.
“Dr. Robert Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, which develops curriculums for schools, defines forgiveness as simply ‘choosing to be good to those who are not good to us,’” according to the article. “He does not recommend adjudicating the hurt. Better to skip the picking over, the enumerating, the case-making. Direct your energy to this transformative move: recognizing the inherent worth in the other.”
To support her forgiveness-for-the-holidays premise, Corrigan says “there’s research showing a link between facing our own flaws and finding our way to forgive others.”
The research she sites is a 2013 study conducted by psychology professors at Sakarya University in Sakarya, Turkey, that liberally references the work of Dr. Enright and many of his forgiveness research associates including:
- The Human Development Study Group (University of Wisconsin-Madison) formed by Dr. Enright in 1994.
- Richard Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist who co-authored Forgiveness Therapy with Dr. Enright.
- Catherine Coyle, who with Dr. Enright focused on pregnancy and abortion.
- Joanna North, a forgiveness pioneer and philosopher who co-authored Exploring Forgiveness with Dr. Enright.
- Gayle Reed whose work with Dr. Enright focused on forgiveness with emotionally abused women.
According to Corrigan, the painful conflicts that pass between family members over a lifetime often become inflamed during the holidays—but they don’t have to. She ends her article this way:
“If you’re looking for a 2021 holiday miracle, here’s a big one: At every Thanksgiving table, there are people who have managed to look past all kinds of wrongs, people who engage in a voluntary amnesty that marries an acceptance of our own flawed ordinariness and the truth that every last one of us is more than our most unjust behaviors. At every table, people are breaking bread, raising a glass, letting go.”
With more than 5.65 million paid subscribers to its digital (online) edition, the New York Times is one of the most widely read newspapers in the world. It has been a fixture of American print news for more than 150 years and has won far more Pulitzer Prizes (130) than any other media company in U.S. history.
Forgiving is much more than just calming down. This is the case because some people calm down because they have dismissed from their life the one who was unfair. When a person calms down, there is not necessarily a sense of goodness toward the other, only an inner state that is no longer angry. Forgiveness is an active virtue of trying to be good to those who were not good to the forgiver. A calm inner world is not necessarily that.
I just do not have the confidence to forgive one of my parents from issues of long ago. I keep telling myself that I will not be able to get it done. What can you suggest to me that might boost my confidence?
First, I suggest that you look back on your life to concrete examples of your forgiving others. Have you had at least one successful attempt in your past? If so, you have shown yourself that you can forgive.
Even if you have never forgiven someone, you can start now with someone who is easier to forgive than your father. Try to recall someone who has hurt you in the past, but who has not hurt you severely. Start the forgiveness process with him or her and keep at it until you have forgiven. Once you succeed with this person, then try another, again who has not hurt you gravely.
Once you have successfully practiced forgiveness on these two people, keep in mind the path that you walked and now apply it to your parent. The practice may give you the confidence you need.
What advice do you have for parents when there are conflicts between siblings? What are the dangers to be avoided?
Sometimes, when parents want the children to forgive one another, the parent engages in a superficial ritual such as this:
“What do you say?” (directed toward the one who acted unjustly).
The parent waits for the words, “I am sorry.”
The parent then asks the one who was hurt by the other, “Now what do you say?”
The parent waits of the words, “I forgive you.”
Parents have to be careful that they do not equate forgiveness, in the children’s minds, with a language-ritual of “sorry” and “I forgive.” This is the case because forgiveness originates in the heart and the one who was treated badly might need a cooling-off period. It is best if the children are drawn both to forgiveness and to being forgiven rather than being forced into these.