Photograph by Louisa Hext

Samantha Lawler’s mother was murdered by her father in 1999 at the family home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her father admitted to strangling his wife, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and rape and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Thirteen years later, Samantha visited her father in prison – an event which would change her life.

When my sister and I were old enough, my mom decided she didn’t need to stay in an unhappy marriage any longer. When she told my Dad she was planning to leave him he didn’t believe her and would say things like “if you leave I’ll put you six feet under”. But none of us believed him because that was the way he joked. He had never hurt or abused any of us – he just had this tough guy mentality.

It was a month before Christmas when it started getting really bad between my parents. Constant fighting which made my mom certain she needed to leave him. We planned to leave after Christmas. Then one day I came home and my mom was lying on the couch. A friend came over and we stayed in my room for about an hour. When I came downstairs I noticed my mom was in exactly the same position. I knew instantly then that something was terribly wrong. Rushing over to her I saw her face was covered in blue spots and it was obvious she was dead. When I saw her purse lying next to her, I realized it wasn’t a burglar who had done this – it was my dad.

The paramedics arrived, my mom’s body was carried out in a body bag and I realized at that point that nothing would ever be the same again. It was like someone had shut the door, and turned off the light.

For the next 13 years I didn’t have a good view of the world. My life was a muted, drunken blur. If people complained they had bad relationships with their family I had no tolerance whatsoever. I was consumed by a potent mix of grief and anger – grief that I’d lost my mom and anger with my dad for taking her away.

I grieved but because my parents had both been such amazing people, who had instilled in me ways of coping, I was able to function. I went out, had relationships and appeared to be my normal self. People would tell me it was good to cry so sometimes I would spend a whole afternoon crying – but it didn’t help. As the years passed it made no difference to the level of grief and hopelessness I felt.

Finally, when I was 32, I took a three day personal development workshop with the Landmark Forum. There were a hundred people in the group and I could see how we all shared similar stories of fear, anger, jealousy and despair. What I took from that course was a strong feeling of empathy and compassion towards humanity. I felt empowered and tried to practice what I’d learnt in my everyday life by calling up people from my past to set things right. As I made a list of all the people I’d turned my back on I finally came across my dad. I really was not expecting to work on that part of my life but I realized now that my dad must also be dealing with anger, loss and frustration.

I immediately contacted the facility where he was incarcerated and found out they had been trying to get hold of me because my father was in a critical condition, quite literally on his death bed. And so in October 2012 I set out from New York to Florida to visit him.

I was only given ten minutes with my father. He was unrecognizable, a shell of his former self. He’d had multiple strokes and his muscles had atrophied. He was breathing from a tube, couldn’t talk and was handcuffed to the bed. He also had AIDS. But his eyes were open and for all those ten minutes he made eye contact with me.

I was overwhelmed. So this was what judgment looked like! Suddenly I realized he was doing what I’d always wanted – suffering terribly. The shock and the appalling state he was in cleaned the slate clean for me. I told him over and over how much I loved him and that I forgave him. And I apologized for waiting so long to come to see him and to tell him this. I realized later that during that ten minutes there were no feelings of hate or guilt, or right and wrong. There was just a deep connection. No conservation was necessary, no apology. For ten minutes I got my dad back and when I left I felt this incredible weight drop away.

I still can hardly believe how the very thing I didn’t want to do – see my dad again – is exactly what has given me my life back. I still miss my mom just as much but it’s as if that whole dark part of how she died isn’t there anymore. And I have compassion for my dad now in the way that you have compassion for the bully who uses aggression to mask pain and hurt.

Also, forgiveness for me is absolute and final. There isn’t a day I wonder whether I have forgiven my father or not. I’ve come to believe that we all have good and bad in us; we’re all figuring life out as best we can. When people make the wrong choices they are figuring it out too.

Forgiveness is not about forgiving the act but forgiving the imperfections which are inherent in all of us.