By Nicole Cotter
On May 2nd, 2015, Caitlin woke up early to her phone buzzing, assuming it was her alarm to get up for spin class. Instead, it was her mom calling.
“Hi Caitlin. I have something serious to tell you.”
“Oh, is it Grandma? It’s okay mom.” Caitlin’s Grandma had been experiencing health problems, so Caitlin knew that she could pass anytime.
“No, Caitlin…it’s your sister.”
Caitlin’s heart started racing.
Her mom explained that her little sister, Jillian, had been hit by a drunk driver in the early hours of the morning and was in the hospital on life support. The driver of Jillian’s cab had died on impact, leaving behind his wife and two daughters.
Caitlin lived in BC with her husband, while her family lived in her home province, Alberta. So as soon as she hung up the call with her mom, she quickly packed a bag and caught a flight to Calgary.
By the time she met her parents at the hospital in Calgary, they had decided they would have to take Jillian off of life support. Caitlin and her family gathered around her little sister’s hospital bed, prayed with her, and peacefully said goodbye. Jillian was just 25-years-old.
Caitlin says Jillian lived life without fear or anxiety. She attended Trinity Western University and then moved back to Calgary. After graduation, she had a year of unemployment, so in the last year and a half of her life, she did everything. She hung out with her parents and family. She loved the outdoors, and she loved the Calgary Stampede. So every chance she got she would be hiking, or snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. And in the summer she would be at all the outdoor concerts, or at the stampede.
“It’s cool to look back at that and realize she got a whole year to spend time with family, and her friends and build relationships. It was intentional,” Caitlin says.
In the weeks after Jillian’s death, the story was all over the news. Caitlin’s first instinct was to figure out how to turn these two deaths into something good. Caitlin and her family organized fundraising to support the cab driver’s family.
They also struggled with knowing that other people around them, like the nurses and first responders that dealt with Jillian, wouldn’t have the support around them to help them deal with such a tragic event. “We knew we had our faith and support communities, but other people often have to suffer through things like this without that type of support,” Caitlin says.
So they made an effort to make an impact in the city and be an example. “Whether through a glimpse of our faith, or attitudes of forgiveness, our goal was that these two lives leave a lasting impact. Instead of the story just being about the young man who killed them,” she says.
A year after Jillian’s death, Caitlin and her family were in court, in front of the 20-year-old man who had killed Jillian.
Putting a face to him made the whole thing real for Caitlin, and she began to battle with her anger towards him.
Around that time, Village Church advertised an upcoming Freedom Session. She felt compelled to do it, but she tried to push back against that feeling. She ended up being convinced by someone else’s Freedom Session testimonial. She decided to apply just to see if she would get in. A few weeks later when she was told she had been accepted, she was still tempted to back out.
“But I showed up to the first week, scared out of my mind for what I was entering into…and from that moment on, I was radically changed,” Caitlin says.
While working through Freedom Session, she also had to go to court to give her Victim Impact Statement as part of the sentencing process. In the Victim Impact Statement, Caitlin would have to share a brief overview of Jillian, her relationship with her, the joys Jillian brought to her life, and how Jillian’s death has impacted her.
In the process of preparing for court, Caitlin had to make a personal decision about whether she would forgive or not. She worked through her “hurts inventory” (ways others have hurt her) with her Freedom Session Facilitator, and she got to a point where she realized that if she could let go, she could be freed up to live at peace.
When she showed up to represent her sister in court, Caitlin had never felt God’s presence more clearly. She felt completely at peace. And her heart broke for the young man who sat before her awaiting his sentence, knowing that he will have two lives on his conscience for the rest of his life.
“The feeling you get when you can forgive and let go, and trust that God, at the end of times, will deal with people…it’s freedom!”
Caitlin received a lot of pushback from the public when she shared with the media that she had forgiven the man who killed her sister, and that she couldn’t let anger ruin the rest of her life. “I think a lot of people just don’t understand total forgiveness. They think that anger will promote change, but anger is not going to make change happen. Forgiveness and the joy that can come out of grief and pain will cause change. That’s kind of the stance we’re trying to take as a family.”
“I want to believe that I’ve always had that attitude in me, but I think in the years before Jillian’s accident, hearing Pastor Mark’s sermons on forgiveness was prepping my heart. Those were always the most impactful sermons for me.”
Once she decided to forgive, Caitlin thought she had done all the hard work already. But then she began the portion of Freedom Session in which she had to work through making amends (for ways that she had wronged other people).
The greatest challenge was making amends for the ways she had hurt her sister. It was typical sibling stuff like picking on Jillian, not encouraging her enough, or pointing out her flaws. But for Caitlin, they seemed so much worse because she felt she had missed her chance to apologize and be forgiven.
So, as part of her Freedom Session process, she spent weeks trying to write a letter to Jillian, asking for forgiveness for all of those things. When she was finally done, she prayed over it.
Last month, on May 2, 2017, Caitlin got to share her journey at her Freedom Session Grad Night, exactly two years after her sister was hit.
She was very nervous, but her entire Freedom Session small group stood on stage with her.
She stood among her group, who had journeyed through the entire process with her, and began, “I’m graduating from something so beautiful on the anniversary of such a tragic day.” From there, she was able to share her story of giving up anger and finding peace in God’s justice, and also finding healing in asking for Jillian’s forgiveness.
“I am blessed that my grief story has a positive spin on it. I totally get those grief stories that are dark, miserable, and take time. But I encourage those people to be bold enough to go into something like Freedom Session, or get counselling in a Christian environment and walk through it with God and not without Him.”
“The biggest thing that I’ve learned is the importance of trusting God in it all. Through the grief, through everything, just hold on for dear life and trust that He’s going to show up when it’s appropriate, when it’s timely, and in the instances that you need Him the most.”