In November 1984, Wilma and Cliff Derksen’s 13-year-old daughter Candace went missing on her way home from school in Winnipeg. Seven weeks later her body was found. Twenty-two years after that, charges were laid and a man was found guilty. The case is now in an appeal process. Throughout every parent’s worst nightmare, the Derksens have been committed to forgiveness. Today Wilma Derksen is a speaker and consultant on victimization and criminal justice. She has just written The Way of Letting Go: One Woman’s Walk Toward Forgiveness (Zondervan, 2017).
Faith Today: Wilma, the book is set up as a series of letting things go, like letting go of the happy ending, letting go of your narrow faith. How central to forgiveness is the concept of letting go?
Wilma Derksen: Forgiveness is the broader umbrella word for letting go. It has been essential to the last 30 years. It is a constant.
FT: In the book you talk about a man, the father of a murdered child, who came to visit you to commiserate, and he was so angry and bitter, and you decided you didn’t want to be like that. Can you tell us about that?
WD: When that man came I was so horrified. In hindsight it was almost like a prophet or an angel. I think it gave us that fear to really address the grief and pain and need for forgiveness in a way that was so intentional. We were already forgiving, I had already had it in my mind, but then to apply it to this abyss of trauma that we were so unaware of. I was almost panicking thinking that we had to find an alternative, and if we didn’t, it wouldn’t only be Candace we had lost, it would be everybody.
I couldn’t do life like that man did it. I had to fight it. I knew I was in for a battle for my life. It has proven to be. I have fought it to the best of my ability and now I can say yes, it did keep us together. I would have lost so much if I hadn’t embraced it. I struggled through each part of it. It is the daily drudgery of letting go.
FT: When pain comes up again, and people feel maybe they haven’t forgiven after all, you write, "It isn’t that we can’t forgive or that we haven’t forgiven, we just haven’t finished forgiving as the issues continue to present themselves to us."
WD: Losing Candace looks differently today than it did when I was a young woman. Now it presents itself in a whole new way, but it doesn’t finish. The issues continue. It’s the time and the constant presentation of the things you have lost in time. It’s different in terms of where I’m sitting in my personality at the time.
If I’m feeling very physical and thinking about weight – maybe I’m eating too much because I’m emotionally unsatisfied – then the weight is a presenting issue going back to the loss. Or maybe it’s a spiritual pain where I think, "Why was I given this cross?" or socially, "I’m still locked up in this. I’m forever the parent of a murdered child."
Forgiveness is as complicated as life is, and every day is so different than yesterday. Now what we’re going through with the retrial, it’s a very vivid example of how these issues remain, and might for the rest of our lives.
FT: Often the word closure is used, but it seems like with pain and grief like this and the process of forgiveness, it can take a lifetime. Can you speak to that?
WD: I think we yearn for closure, and I guess in some ways what I do is encourage people to do artificial chapter endings. We need to commemorate the moment. At the end of the day, we need to close the day down. But when it comes to big issues, forgiveness is never closed. It’s never finished. You never finish cleaning the house. There are some things you can close, but you can never close the big things in life.
Love is never closed. You never stop loving someone. I love Candace still.
I appreciate chapter endings. At the end of every trial we have a kind of closing ceremony. We have to be intentional about moving through all of this. It’s intentional about the moving, with the idea that it will never be finished.
FT: You use a term in your book "the dishonour of minimization," when you share about how people help, or don’t help.
WD: To be a good friend means you need to have the courage to go into the darkness. Not a lot of friends can do that. To honour the darkness is to go into it. It is to experience it with another person and to hit the bottom together. It’s the companionship in sorrow.
So often we just want to minimize. We also minimize happiness with friends. We want to keep things even keel, but it’s in the spikes of up and down where we will encounter life. We can’t just clip things off. To get down to the roots of things with a friend, that’s where the healing happens.
Nothing happens when we are playacting. We can keep things light and fluffy, and it feels like we are doing the right thing by being shallow, but the healing happens when we go down deep, and that takes courage and risk.
FT: You and your husband have both experienced some healing through art. How and why has that been helpful?
WD: I think we like to live in the left brain, but the wisdom and the bigger issues of life are held in the right brain. Art gives us permission to explore the right brain and leave the mind and the logic out of it. It’s the right brain that can portray the deeper meanings in life.
Cliff, who is a wonderful, gifted sculptor, has felt very driven to do a piece of art, and we look at it and see it is right from the depths of his heart. We can take it outside of ourselves and look at it, and in that process we learn about ourselves and others.
It’s also fun and play. It’s playing in therapy rather than having to do the grunt work. It’s mysterious and fun and adventurous and gratifying in terms of the final product. It’s a fast way to communicate with others. My book might take three hours to read, but you can walk in and see Cliff’s work immediately.
I do my art differently. Mine is just white. It’s my comfort place to go to. When I’m feeling life is too chaotic and I don’t have words, I float into white. I embed it with scripture so the Word of God is behind it. I don’t like Scripture verses on the wall that are so obvious, but I embed them in the art. I have one in my living room now that I’m looking at that is a wall of bricks – God is my fortress – but I paint the verse over with white.
FT: How has the Church helped you, or maybe not, through this process?
WD: We needed the Church right from the beginning, and they were there for us, looking for Candace. They understood the panic. I think that sometimes later on, on the whole, I had wonderful friends who helped me verbalize. My friends were very good at that.
I have a very good set of friends who allowed me to do a lot of deep talking. But there are times when there is ritualism in the Church and going through the motions, and when you are really hurting, those rituals can seem so shallow and out of place, and the promises of God can feel so hard to attain. Even the Lord’s Prayer just seems so demanding and something so impossible in those times.
The expectations from the Church are very, very high, but you need both expectations and acceptance. When the expectations override the loving of the sinner, those times when I was failing, when I wasn’t even meeting my own expectations, the Church can be a pretty harsh place to be.
I especially hated that hymn "It Is Well With My Soul." It isn’t well with my soul. Life is broken. The world is broken so much of the time. There needs to be a lot of understanding of our brokenness. Otherwise we playact and no one is healed. At one point we went to a very dark church and just sat in the darkness. There is a time for that.
On the other hand I really have appreciated the Church support, and sometimes you have to act before your heart gets to where you want it to be. You just keep going, and eventually it becomes a calm place again.
FT: In the book you discuss letting go of a narrow faith. What kind of faith do you have now?
WD: I think that being scared and human, we often have a very narrow and controlling faith. My God is a creator, He’s a God who loves choice, the perfect parent who just loves their child and allows them to risk, and knows that it’s not one of control, but of love.
And that means it is a bit scary. God allows choice. He allowed choice for the angels, and in the Garden of Eden. God is all powerful, but He is moral and righteous, which means the world is not perfect. I have a bigger God who is quite majestic and loves play, but wants reality rather than any kind of fake sham of security. It’s in the tension of life that I feel alive, but in my fear I don’t want that. I want it to be controlled and comfortable.
That is where God is. God is a God of tension, at least in this world. The vibration of good and evil with the pull toward the other, the good and the huge celebration of every time we even just give someone a glass of water. God is in the little victories.
FT: Thank you so much, Wilma.