Photography by Marina Cantacuzino
In 2017 Fernando and Elizabeth Jimenez’s 24-year-old daughter, Maria, was killed in a fatal car crash on the A3 motorway outside Guildford. Maria’s friend, Nick, was later convicted of causing death by dangerous driving. As part of their healing Elizabeth and Fernando – both missionaries from Costa Rica who had come to England in 1995 – chose to support and befriend the young man responsible for their daughter’s death.
Maria was completing her final year at Brighton University when the accident happened. She’d gone out for dinner with a friend from church where she was a leader and a singer in the church band. Because she had drunk wine she asked her friend Nick to drive her car and take her home. That’s one of the things that’s caused me most pain. A year before Maria died I bought her that car for her birthday. I wanted to make her life easier.
It turned out Nick wasn’t insured to drive the car and he was speeding 100 miles an hour when they crashed.
As a father, nothing prepares you for the Police turning up at your door at six in the morning to tell you your daughter has died in a ‘one-car accident’. I completely collapsed, but then I knew I had to go and tell my wife and son. We’d just moved as a family to the Guildford area to be near the church but at the time we were all living separately with different friends.
In the early days I blamed myself for buying Maria a car. I also blamed Nick. I wanted to get out a machete and kill him. These revenge fantasies initially got me through, but I also knew I didn’t want to end up a bitter man.
Also, I couldn’t believe Maria had given him the car to drive. She was always the one telling me to be careful. It was very difficult for me to accept she could be so silly. She was a strong, good character full of life and joy. She was so dear to me and I knew she would want me to forgive Nick if she was here. So I took this position in order to honour Maria. I found great help in knowing I couldn’t blame God or anyone. It was an accident.
The tragedy of our daughter’s death gave me a new vision of Elizabeth as she coped with her grief and with all the legal details. Suddenly, I realized she was much stronger than me. I expected her to be broken and to blame me – and that after a while there would be a divorce. That’s what happens when parents lose a child. But we found a lot of strength in each other.
The death of Maria created a resilience in Elizabeth which wasn’t there before. It seemed that what she couldn’t give Maria she now transferred to Nick. In the end she became like a substitute mother for him. We were the only parental figures here in England for him, as he had come with his brother form Singapore to study at university.
Nick and I spent several months together talking about everything as we waited for the case to be heard. This was a very good time for both of us in terms of the process of healing and it allowed me to face the future with love and forgiveness. Today I, too, love Nick like a son.
From the beginning Fernando and I reacted differently to Maria’s death. Fernando didn’t want to know any of the details whereas I attended all the police interviews and court appearances along with our son Joshua. I did a lot of reading and investigating around the case, and wrote to the prosecuting lawyer and the judge asking for leniency. I saw no point in making a criminal out of Nick. A far more satisfactory outcome would have been for him to retake his driving test, attend a speed awareness course… and maybe have some counselling sessions for his grieving. Then he would have been able to finish university.
Before the accident I’d been disabled for a few years. I’d been having panic attacks and taking morphine combined with many other medications to help me deal with the pain, to the extent that I almost lost my mind. But by the time of Maria’s death I had stopped taking morphine and most of the other medications and the panic attacks were nearly gone. Fernando and Joshua were really worried as they didn’t know how I’d react to the news. It is of course the worst thing that can ever happen to a parent. I was numb for months and my whole body felt broken.
What I think helped was the Police telling us that Maria’s ‘boyfriend’ had been driving the car, because it meant we at first assumed it must be her ex, who we loved.
That was my first thought and it saved me.
I had no vengeful feelings. Even at the hospital while we were waiting to see the body, I asked a friend to find out where Nick was. I thought, my daughter is dead but Nick is alive so I need to go to him. Obviously I wasn’t allowed to do that as he was in custody.
But once he was released and before the court hearing I saw Nick frequently and we discovered the young man he really was. We had much in common. Slowly we became very, very fond of him.
The court case lasted just one afternoon. Nick was given a sentence of seven and half years of which he was to serve half.
Going to prison was extremely traumatic for Nick. He felt such deep guilt and remorse. With his family in another country I began to visit him every week. Things improved for him when he was moved to Maidstone Prison and joined the Beating Time choir. That made such a difference to him because it meant time together with others and space to sing. And crucially he found a way to express extremely complex and painful feelings. He even wrote a song for Maria called Closer which is on the Beating Time website.
I’ve always known that in order for there to be a happy ending to this story, restoration has to take place and be the driving force guiding me to overcome my loss and pain. I don’t want there to be any more casualties.