Wilma Derksen (Canada)

“We knew that murder takes a life but we also knew that the aftermath of murder can be just as deadly.”

In November 1984 Wilma and Cliff Derksen’s 13-year-old daughter, Candace, went missing on her way home from school in Winnipeg, Canada. It wasn’t until 22 years later that Mark Grant was charged with her murder and in 2011, after a five week trial, sentenced to 25 years without parole.   For the past three decades Wilma has influenced victims, offenders and her local community by writing and speaking on the subject of forgiveness.

For six and a half weeks we didn’t know what had happened to Candace. She just disappeared into thin air.  But everyone knows that when a 13-year-old girl goes missing then something is terribly wrong.  She was a child in a woman’s body, that moment of vulnerability when one minute they’re a child and the next a woman.

Eventually Candace’s body was found in a shack not far from our home – her hands and feet had been tied. Someone had forced her there but we lived with the mystery of not knowing who had done this for the next 22 years.

The day her body was found all our friends came to visit bringing warm food with them. There was so much love in the house that it helped us get through.  Then at around 10.30 that evening, when most people had left, there was a knock on the door and this stranger stood there. He told us, “I’m the parent of a murdered child too.” He was saying we now belonged to an exclusive club that no one wants to belong to. We invited him to the kitchen table and for the next two hours he told us in vivid detail everything he’d lost – his health, his relationships, his concentration, his ability to work. He’d even lost all memory of his daughter because now he could only think of the murder, the trauma and the hate that followed.

Cliff and I went to bed that night horrified by the graphic picture he’d painted. Having just been through the pain of losing our daughter, it now seemed we might lose everything else as well.  And so we made a decision that night that we would respond differently, and we chose the path of forgiveness.

This decision was validated and verified the next day at the press conference when a reporter asked us what we thought of the offender, and we replied that our intention was to forgive. From then on we became known as the couple who had forgiven. In hindsight, I don’t think we had any idea what forgiveness looked like in the face of murder, but our state of mind at the time was such that we knew we had to say no to anger and obsession. We determined to resist anything that would keep us in a state of emotional bondage, both for our sake and the sake of our other two children.

Little did I know that the word forgiveness would haunt me for the next 30 years – prod me, guide me, heal me, label me, enlighten me, imprison me, free me and in the end define me. I was right out there in public – confessing to everyone the desire of my heart. When I joined Family Survivors of Homicide I was quite forcibly told to forget about using the word forgiveness because they could only see the dangers of forgiving.  In some ways that was good for me because, as a Mennonite, it made me lose the religious lingo and forced me to be more authentic. Forgiveness is a hard word, it demands a lot of you and is so often misunderstood.

At times it was incredibly tough. People said we couldn’t have loved Candace because we forgave. One woman said my stance was dangerous because I was promoting a society where all the murderers would go free. Also, because the perpetrator hadn’t been found, some people were suspicious of Cliff.

But it’s true that your enemy becomes your best and most wonderful teacher because people’s reactions taught us who our friends really were. You can’t play games around murder – there’s a kind of vulnerability and transparency that occurs and you have to become a better person to get through. You can’t stay around in the fog. You need to soar, to go higher. That’s forgiveness.

Not knowing who the killer was for all those years didn’t stop us from moving forward but we had to fight against becoming obsessed. We knew that murder takes a life but we also knew – through the appearance of the bereaved father at our door – that the aftermath of murder can be just as deadly.

Then, in 2007, everything charged when Mark Grant was charged with Candace’s murder. We’d come to grips with living with the unknown and now we were right back at the beginning with all the old emotions of fear, anger and grief. At one point I got very sick, my whole body ached and I knew it was the anger.

When Mark Grant received 25 years without parole his sentence seemed to match the gravity of the offence and we were satisfied.  But unfortunately that wasn’t the end of it because since then the case has gone to appeal and is currently before Canada’s top court. It’s troubling to think we might have to go through another trial, the waste of public money and the ongoing “guilty or not guilty” debate that erodes the public’s faith in the justice system. However, we as a family are content to go on with our lives and leave it with the attorneys now. We are just continually grateful that there was a trial, and our justice system did come through for us in revealing the true story.

For me forgiving has been about turning what has happened to us into good. Forgiveness is not just a one off event, nor does it mean you’re doing the same thing again and again. The issues of Candace’s murder present themselves differently every day. Forgiveness is a fresh, on-going, ever present position of the mind which takes on many different forms. It’s a promise of what we want to do, a goal, a North Star, a mantra.