Marina: Welcome to the F Word – a podcast series that examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through.
Each episode I will be talking to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.
My guest today is Wilma Derksen, a mother, grandmother, author of several books, therapist and an advocate for healing justice. 36 years ago – Wilma’s daughter – 13-year-old Candace – was found, bound and murdered in a shed in Winnipeg. And it’s been a long, difficult and circuitous journey of healing but Wilma has an incredible insight into the power of forgiveness and into what forgiveness can do to resuscitate and revive in the midst of the deepest pain and trauma.
Wilma, it is wonderful to talk to you today and I am really grateful to you for sparing the time.
I just wondered if we could start by talking about Candace. It’s 36 years now and so much has happened in the intervening time and I was just wondering how easy is it for you to hold onto those memories, those 13 precious years you had with Candace. Speak a little bit about her, if you wouldn’t mind.
Wilma: It’s really strange about memory because sometimes it seems like ages ago, in ancient times kind of, but on the other hand sometimes she is very real and very present and especially now that I have a grandchild that just resembles Candace in every way.
Candace had such a vivid and vivacious kind of personality that she is hard to forget as it is but now we have this daily reminder. She looks like her and acts like her. It is not easy to forget. It is there all the time it seems, even though it has been 36 years.
Marina: So, was she your oldest child?
Wilma: Yes, she was. She was 13 years old when she died.
Marina: And you had two other children, is that right?
Wilma: Yes. Odia was 9 years old when Candace was murdered and Syras was 3 years old and so they are now adults with children of their own and beautiful marriages and beautiful family lives. I am very proud of them.
Marina: Would you mind just speaking about what happened to Candace and how the initial disappearance and then the discovery of the body impacted on you and your family?
Wilma: It all happened when unexpected on a Friday afternoon when Candace didn’t come home from school. She was 13 years old, like I said, and she just disappeared. She just didn’t come home from school so we spent seven weeks looking for her and it was horrendous.
I will never forget those weeks and we found her body in a shed not that far from our place. Her hands and her feet had been tied and she died of exposure and hypothermia because it was a winter in Winnipeg, a cold onset of the winter actually, the first real night when temperatures plummeted below 20.
And, so it was such a shock to us that she had not come home and the other thing was, who would take her. She was such a beautiful, innocent child. She was in her early teens. She was just kind of a child in an adult body and her body was found happenstance by somebody and that was when we found out that she had been murdered.
Marina: And, Wilma, during these seven weeks that you were looking for her and I imagine every day it must have been torture, but by the time she was discovered, had you as a mother had some kind of instinct? Had you come to terms with the fact that you wouldn’t be seeing her again?
Wilma: I think I had to, very quickly, because the only thing that Candace had was her youth and her vibrancy, and so I just knew that she had been targeted by a stranger because no one else was on the scene and we just knew, almost immediately, that it was an abduction by a stranger.
I had an instinctive feeling that she had left very early but you know that doesn’t seem to stop the pain and the hope. Even though instinctively I felt that she had left this world already, it didn’t stop me from hoping. So the actual finding of the body was horrific. It was such a conclusion to everything.
Marina: What kept you going through that time? I mean, was it friends, family, community, I imagine.
Wilma: During those seven weeks it became a high profile case in Winnipeg and Winnipeg just grouped around us and supported us and came and knocked on our door and entered into our lives, in many ways wanting to help us in every possible way. So we were open to having people in and the day that her body was found our house was filled with people again and they all kind of left at ten o’clock at night and they left one couple to stay with us to help us through the night.
At 10 o’clock the doorbell rang again and I went to answer it and there was a stranger and he said, “I have come to tell you what to expect. I too am a parent of a murdered child.” And so, of course, we wanted to know what to expect and what he would say and, so we invited him to the kitchen table and there for two hours he told us exactly what had happened to him and read out his diary and we were horrified.
He pulled out bottles of pills and put them on the table and said this has broken my health and I now have a heart condition. He talked about the inability to concentrate and the inability to work. He talked about his relational traumas and isolation and his feeling of being alone. And, so in two hours we just got a huge, vivid picture of what lay before us and in those days we didn’t know about post traumatic stress disorder. We had no names for it. All we saw was this coat of heaviness and darkness around this man and we were terrified.
By the time he left, he left his presence with us and so, on top of the grief and on top of the tragedy, we also encountered this huge fear of whether we were going to survive. He had more or less told us we wouldn’t. He said, “Your life is over”.
So, we went to bed that night. We couldn’t sleep. We saw this presence on our bed almost… The man that talked to us for two hours had almost a dark presence about him. It wasn’t just thoughts and words, he was living something and Cliff and I looked at each other and we both felt it that the bed was somehow contaminated, it was impossible to get into it and we couldn’t sleep and we knew that it had already begun and it was a reality.
It was a figment of our imagination, of course, it wasn’t real but yet it was real to us in a horrific way and that’s when we had to choose what we were going to do.
Marina: And, that’s when you first considered forgiveness, isn’t it? I think it came into your line of vision so early on which is unusual, I think, with traumatic loss and bereavement people usual take years to consider it or embrace it. And, yet for you and your husband, Cliff, it was like there was no alternative. It was the only way that you could deal with the pain that had been presented to you. So how come you started considering forgiveness as a way through so early?
Wilma: It was that moment when we saw this thing on our bed and we knew that we could not climb into our bed and go to sleep and we didn’t have any other beds in the house because we had guests over. And, so because Cliff and I come from a background of faith, I grabbed on to the only thing that I could think of and said, we’re gonna need to forgive.
It was the only alternative, it was a counterintuitive choice and at that point I didn’t even know if it would work. But, I had been taught that when something horrendous happens when we experience an injustice, no matter what it is, we forgive. So, we said the word. We agreed to forgive. And, you know what, that thing moved off the bed. Now, I am talking about it as a metaphor, but somehow the bed was now accessible to us and we actually climbed into it and we went to sleep that night, which to me was a miracle.
So, we woke up the next morning wondering about the power of forgiveness for ourselves. We didn’t even understand what we had done. All we knew was that there is power in forgiveness for us and our idea of forgiveness was I think very differently from other people’s, because ours was a lifestyle. At that point we weren’t choosing anything about God. We weren’t choosing anything about reconciliation because we didn’t even know who the person was. We were choosing it as a kind of way to deal with this trauma that we had encountered that was so foreign to us.
Marina: I think what you are describing there really is forgiveness as a lifeline, isn’t it, as the only way of getting through and still continuing to be a good parent for your two other children.
Wilma: Yes, in hindsight, I agree with you. There was a lifeline for us.
Marina: Also, am I right in thinking you started speaking out about forgiveness publicly almost from that point because I know the story had caught the attention of the people of Winnipeg and throughout Canada. How was that received by friends, your community, press?
Wilma: Well, as you can imagine, we were a little stunned ourselves that we had encountered this new force of forgiveness for ourselves but we had no intention of telling anyone. It was a very private decision.
But, two days after, we held a press conference thanking everybody in Winnipeg for the wonderful way they had supported us and the way they had become involved in our lives. So we were very open and thanking and sharing with them the difficulty of losing a child and being very vulnerable.
Then one of the reporters at the back of the room asked us and what are you going to do about the murderer, because now everybody knew that she hadn’t just run away, that there had been somebody involved and that it was murder. And, both Cliff and I just kind of in a knee-jerk kind of way said, “Well, we are going to forgive”. It worked once, we are going to do it again. And, we had no idea how that would be perceived. We didn’t have any idea what it meant and so very naively we said, “We are going to forgive”.
And, as you can imagine, it hit the news the next day. It changed all of our story in a way and it became more about our response, than about the murder of Candace, our daughter, and we were shocked at that as well. And then we were shocked that people didn’t understand it. I mean, we weren’t too shocked at that because we were having trouble ourselves but we were shocked at the vehemence about it.
Marina: Can you just say what you mean by the word “vehemence”?
Wilma: Well, actually somebody defended us at their workplace and he lost his job because of the discussions. To the wider public it meant that we didn’t care, that we were going to let all the murderers free or something like that. And, in a national newspaper soon after, they had done research on our response, and said that 80 per cent of Canada and Canadians did not understand us and felt that we were being permissive and irresponsible in some ways. We were shocked.
Marina: That must have been so difficult like an additional injury, in a way. Did you then really regret having spoken publicly about forgiveness?
Wilma: I regretted it many times because then instead of being proactive in our forgiveness we began to need to defend it and we didn’t know how to defend it ourselves because we didn’t totally understand it as well, but it worked. All we knew is that it can move you from being bitter and resentful. It can move the dark clouds in your life, not completely, but it does remove it out of the way for you to live your life.
Marina: What actually really surprises me about this vehemence that you received is that it is your tragedy, it was your loss, it was your trauma and I would have expected people to respect that you and your husband should deal with it in the way that you saw fit. I’m really surprised that you were challenged in that way.
But, did you have a sense that people later began to understand forgiveness, what it meant better, as the years went by and as you continued to talk?
Wilma: I think at first the understanding was not there at all. I think it was around one year after when I was starting to seek out people who had experienced murder, because even though Cliff and I had chosen the word “forgiveness”, it still was a constant process and I wanted to learn about the depths of this trauma that we were experiencing and the uniqueness of it, because none of my friends understood what we were going through after that and it was a very complicated journey.
So, I was seeking out people who had experienced murder and I found this Group and they were seeking me too and they were inviting me and we were having these great conversations.
I was with the president and he was inviting me to the Group and I finally I said, “Yes, I would love to come” and then he said, “I will ask the group” and he then went back to the Group and then he said, “They will allow you into the Group on one condition that you lose the word “forgiveness”. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that I was being excluded from this one Group now that I had I thought membership, so I did, I did lose the word “forgiveness”.
Marina: Yes and I often talk about this sense of isolation that talking publicly and speaking out about forgiveness can bring.
Wilma: I just try to break through that all the time, just fighting against the isolation that I was so scared of. Yes, for seven years I didn’t approach the subject or raise the subject. Though, they talked about forgiveness a lot! That was the interesting part.
It was a constant measure of where they were in their healing journey and I just wanted to respect that their expectations and people’s expectations for them to forgive were unrealistic and in some ways, demanding and judging of them and blaming them for not moving faster, so I didn’t be part of that trauma.
Marina: So, did you learn something for yourself during those years?
Wilma: Yes, I learnt how important it is to do the journey and to go through the process and it didn’t need to be verbalised. It just needed to be internalised. It didn’t need a name. It could be a lifestyle. It wasn’t about relationships because I never had a relationship with the person that murdered our daughter.
Marina: And, as you say, at that point you had absolutely no idea who the suspect was or indeed, who had murdered your daughter. So, how can you frame forgiveness in that situation?
Wilma: I started to define it as a counterintuitive choice that we make that is about entering into a process of dealing with the trauma of injustices in a positive way, rather than working with a person to a reconciliation. I think that there is a forgiveness about reconciliation and we do that a lot with interpersonal relationship.
In my marriage I forgive my husband and then it is about mending the wrongs and creating right and all of that. We need to mend relationships but we do not need to be reconciled with everybody on a partnership level but we do need to forgive them. And, so even though he wasn’t in our lives he still remained a presence, a very strong presence in our lives and took on many different forms over the years.
Marina: So, this presence, this person, when you say do forgive them would that be in the sense of never forgiving the act, which of course is unforgiveable, but forgiving the human being who failed and who was fallible and whose darkest impulses somehow changed their form, I guess what Shakespeare called “ruined pieces of nature”?
Wilma: I think it’s a process of dealing with the issues that are created around what the person has done to us and forgiving the issues, forgiving and moving past the issues in a healthy way. It is about not forgiving him but forgiving, like you said, forgiving humanity and everybody and for that I know that I had to really delve into it. I had to explore it. I had to follow my pain. I had to let go. I had to embrace humanity and what we do to each other. I had to allow people to not be perfect and to even have murderous thoughts that lead to murderous actions.
So, I went to prison, I met lifers, I met the most wanted man in Canada. I think I went to 26 prisons and when I was with them it was a kind of a new epiphany when I realised that I had more in common with the criminals than I did sometimes with my well to do friends, because they had such sheltered lives and they went shopping and they did all these mundane things, whereas all of that became not important to me and the process of dealing with trauma became important to me and victimisation issues and criminal issues.
So, I found a different path and so in that there was always a forgiveness attitude that I have got to get through this. I have got to stay loving. I have got to stay connected. I have got to deal with my fears. I have got to deal with my anger. I have got to let go so that I can remain a functioning human being
Marina: Wilma, was Cliff with you all the way through on this journey of healing?
Wilma: He had a different journey in that he had to forgive different things because there was no one that was being accused of her murder, the suspicion went to him quite a bit, which was very unfair and very cruel. So, he became very angry and he went through a whole other dramatic experience, where he had to forgive in his own way.
But yes, definitely, it was a journey together that we both said we are going to forgive. It’s tough, but we are going to forgive. We are going to forgive. It’s the only power there is for us.
Marina: Now that makes absolute sense, Wilma.
You mentioned before that after seven years you started speaking publicly again about forgiveness. I am wondering what made you do that.
Wilma: Well, I found that, even though, I didn’t talk about forgiveness. People still knew that I had forgiven and they were intrigued with it and at this point there was a restart of a justice movement in our country and they wanted to know why it was so hard for victims to forgive.
So, I found myself analysing 15 elements that came up regularly for victims in their stories. They had 15 elements to forgive and all of them are horrendous. All of them would take up a shelf in a library to explain and so we can’t expect people to move through this very quickly.
Marina: And, just to say here that Wilma has written a book called “The Victim’s Journey through the 15 Elements of Serious Crime”. These 15 stages or elements are what most victims will encounter and the elements include, for example, the victim and offender trauma bond, accusation and pride, uncontrollable rage, despair, the desire for the truth and many more, including justice re-victimisation which Wilma later went onto talk about with me.
Wilma: And, as I start to share these 15 elements they are a kind of a way to defend people who didn’t forgive, I became a spokesperson for that and then that came into a reality as I was in prisons and realising that criminals were also going through these same 15 elements.
So, by looking at the 15 elements and looking at the difficulties of the process of forgiveness, we began to talk about forgiveness in a new way as a process of healing and so that was my route into forgiveness, talking about how difficult it was and admiration for the people that did make movements and celebrating each step of the way, “hey, we can do this”.
So we took victims into prisons so that they could have conversations with other people who found it difficult to forgive. That created a kind of support network that helped both in miraculous ways.
Marina: On that point do you think people were more willing to accept your position around forgiveness and did you get less vehement attacks about it?
Wilma: In some ways I think I was always dismissed because they would say, oh yes, you’ve forgiven but you don’t even know who the person is. They would still define forgiveness as reconciliation and in terms of the person, the murderer, and I agreed with them. I didn’t know that I had completed the process because it was ongoing.
And, then with the charging of a suspect 22 years later and then a trial process of 10 years, everything has just more or less ended now, there has been no closure. The man was acquitted after.
It was after the second trial, I was again in public all the time and talking about it and blogging about it. I talked and blogged about the process because I think that’s extremely important, is to continue to be in dialogue about exactly how we are doing as I was sharing this with the public.
And, I think that to some degree people then began to tell me, “You know you have forgiven. You have moved past this. You have remained loving and kind and communicative and open and all the signs of health”.
And, I think then we then looked at our family and realised that both of our children had done very well and have wonderful families and so I think now people are saying, “Hey, there is something about this forgiveness”
And so it has been now that I can finally, say, “Yes, forgiveness does work”.
Marina: I can see that you really went through a kind of torture with the trials. As you say after so many years, more than two decades, that then there was an arrest, a trial, a conviction and then there was an appeal and an acquittal. Is that right?
Wilma: Yes, that was a huge process that we didn’t want even. After 22 years we had learned how to live with the mystery and the trial system just destroys and doesn’t help find closure.
I had seen people coming in to our groups and they had just experienced the murder and they were grieving normally and then two years later they would be going into the trial system and they would come out of the trial system with such anger.
So, I was scared again when we were going into the trial system. What was it going to do to our family now and realising that the justice system itself can be traumatising and it was. I was fortunate in that I had a deeper understanding of it. I was prepared. My children prepared. We had prepared each other and we had a good grasp of it. But, it was everything that people said.
It is horrendous to go into our system and never ever being addressed and greeted in a court room. They greet everybody else, but I was a nothing. I was a nobody. You know that does have its wear and tear on a person’s self-esteem – where you are greeted at Walmart, you are greeted everywhere else but in the trial system, in the court system, it was as if to somehow acknowledge us would interfere with the justice process. So, it had an inherent trauma about it.
Marina: What you have just described, Wilma, is exactly what happens here in England. I recently heard someone describe this second trauma as being as bad as the loss and the murder of their loved one and because they were ignored, none of the services joined up, there was no information and it went on and on.
So, what you are saying, it sounds remarkable really because you knew what to expect and you somehow navigated your way through.
Wilma: Yes. I decided that it would not give me closure so I organised my own closure. After every section of the trial, after every justice process, we would have a party. I realised that there is a horrible moment of quietness after the judges have given their verdict. I couldn’t bear that silence so I would tell everybody we are going to have a party. Come over. I need you to debrief with me and they came. And there were very significant times when they would just come and share.
So, we organised our support but it was tough. It was tough.
Marina: How did you process this fact that the man you thought had murdered your daughter was then acquitted?
Wilma: There was a huge disappointment because it would have been so nice to have clarity and closure and have everything in place, you know, organised in a way and now to continue into the mystery and in some ways have our story re-organised again.
I had already come to the conclusion that he was guilty and now to not be able to even talk about the process, so I just found it very difficult to again, having no identity. There first was the identity of mystery. Then there was the identity that somebody was charged and there was even a time when he was convicted and was going to be sentenced and was sentenced and then to go into this nothing of acquittal.
So, each time it kind of rearranged my own identity. People would perceive me differently. I would perceive myself differently. And, so each time it did have a big impact on how we functioned and then to always move on. This is not going to define me. I am going to be me and I will continue to pursue my goals which I was able to do.
Marina: Perhaps you could just say a little bit before we close, Wilma, about your writing and any other creative output that has helped. I am wondering how important that has been in your healing journey.
Wilma: Yes, I wanted to be a romance writer. I wanted to be a journalist well that’s what was my training, to be a journalist but I really wanted to write romance, write novels and I never did get to it. I did try one but it didn’t turn out very well.
So, I was given this story and asked to tell the story and given this platform. I remember the first year somebody just said, “Why don’t you tell the story now and then in two or three years it has gone. You are not going to have to tell the story again”. But, it never ended and I guess I always felt I needed to share what I was learning.
So my writing then came in to almost being therapy for me. It was a way of communicating with the public because it was a journey and then also a way of organising this event that was happening on top of my life that I had no control over. And then, the emotional journey through it and organising that in a way and processing which is really important in any kind of emotional trauma. So, it was all of that for me and I was very fortunate in that I had an audience that listened.
Sometimes I say I bled all over Canada! I just cried and I didn’t have to pay for a psychologist to do it. That was my creative outlet and my husband is an artist so he started to sculpt his way through the trauma and came up with marvellous sculptures.
It is just like forgiveness helped us, creativity helped us and it was a way of organising ourselves and feeling that we were a value to society.
Marina: Well, I think that is probably a lovely place to end actually, Wilma, looking at the ways you have both found creativity to forge a path through.
It has been such a pleasure to talk to you today, Wilma.
Wilma: It has been my pleasure, Marina. It really has been. It is wonderful the work you are doing.
Marina: Thank you.
Thank you for listening to the F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.
I also want to invite you to join the F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast.
But, most of all, I hope you will join me again.