Finding Forgiveness in the Face of a Christmas Tragedy

Death is not a fun or festive topic to bring up at the holidays, but death—and sometimes tragedy—does not elude us regardless of the season.

Two years ago I drove my RV to Newtown, Connecticut to make and deliver homemade pies to the grieving community after the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Twenty-six people in the school, most of them around the tender age of six, were killed by a lone—and lonely—mentally ill gunman.

The story rocked the nation—distressed by the senseless loss of innocence. It was so blatantly wrong. So deeply troubling. It was impossible for me to sit with the sadness, the outrage and the overwhelming compassion, so much so that I got up from my desk, loaded up my pie-making supplies in the RV, and headed 1,000 miles east from Iowa to Newtown. I spent a full week away—several days in Flanders, New Jersey, where my friend Janice had organized what ended up being 60 volunteers in her neighborhood, and then several days in Newtown, where we handed out apple pie to a community hungry for comfort and support. Our gesture was in the form of food, food made with heart containing the intangible ingredient of love. It felt good to help. To not just read about it and sit alone with feelings of frustration, but to get involved, to actually do something.

It’s exactly two years later and I just moved from Iowa to Redondo Beach, California, so I could be nearer to my parents. (It is also very nice to be nearer to the beach.) I just settled into an apartment about 15 minutes away from theirs.

On Wednesday night, December 17, I spent the evening with my parents at their place. (I never turn down my mom’s cooking so I’m eating there nearly every night.) I was driving home after dinner around 10PM and my route along Pacific Coast Highway was blocked off by police cars, their emergency lights flashing red and blue in the darkness. I followed the other cars around that section of the three-block detour, but managed to catch a glimpse of the police scene. It appeared to be a car accident. Three cars were wedged together, their metal hoods buckled, in the middle of the highway. A team was surrounding it, measuring and documenting. I noted the Channel 5 news truck parked to the side. I continued on to my place, turned on the lights in my living room, and called my mom to let her know I made it home safely (a courtesy ingrained from the time I got my drivers license.) “Turn on the news to Channel 5, mom,” I told her. “There was an accident on PCH and it must have been bad.”

She called back a few minutes later. It was worse than bad. A 56-year-old woman, apparently intoxicated, ran a red light, drove around some stopped cars, and mowed down 12 people in a crosswalk who were just leaving a Christmas concert at St. James Catholic Church. The woman kept driving and only stopped when she plowed head-on into another car. All 12, plus the drunk driver and the driver of the car she hit, were injured. Or dead.

My heart crumpled into what felt like a wad of wrapping paper as I heard the news. Those poor people. Families coming out of a church Christmas concert. The definition of innocence—and the instant loss of it. It felt like Newtown all over again. Only this time a car was the weapon. Two of the people killed were grandmothers. One was a 36-year-old mother. The next day that mother’s six-year-old boy died from his injuries. He never had a chance. The child had been pinned under the tires of one of the cars. Some of the others injured are still in the hospital, several in serious condition.

Mine wasn’t the only heart to break over this story. The tragedy made international news, news that I was following closely, refreshing my news app every hour to see if anything more was known, anything that would help make sense of this otherwise mind-bending senselessness. Just how drunk was this woman? Did she have a driving record? How could this have happened? More importantly, how does a community recover? And what could I do to help? Make pie?

I was back at my parents for dinner last night, a Sunday. The topic of the tragedy came up again, what the media is calling the “Christmas concert crash.” I hadn’t told my mom how deeply I was still feeling for these Redondo Beach residents and their loss, and how I was wondering why it was still bothering me so much. Was it because it was in my own new neighborhood? Or because I came upon the site just two hours after it happened? Were the departed souls still at the scene and I was feeling their presence? Was it the knowledge from my own tragic losses of my late husband 5 years ago and my daughter-like dog, Daisy, only 5 weeks ago?

I wish I didn’t know what grief feels like, but I do. Which is why when grief strikes others in that sudden and unexpected way, my compassion escalates, soars. I have to be mindful not to take on others’ pain as if it were my own.

My mom goes to church at St. James, where the tragedy happened. She had been to noon mass yesterday and gave us the recap over dinner last night. “Father Francis’s eyes were very red. He looked so tired,” she started off. “He must be under so much stress. His sermon was very good. He talked about what happened. There had been a thousand people at the Christmas concert that night.”

I put my fork down, swallowed my bite of ravioli, and told her, “I noticed on my way over here that the shrine of flowers is gone. I thought that was very strange that they would remove it.” I was referring to the sidewalk in front of the church where mourners had left bouquets of flowers and teddy bears and candles. Collections of mementos like these serve as a public sympathy card and the bigger the pile of flowers and bears—the more signatures squeezed onto the card, so to speak—the more people care. (Newtown had so many flowers and teddy bears they had to hire moving trucks and warehouse space.)

“No, it’s still there. They had to move it,” my mom said. “It got so big it was blocking the sidewalk and people were having to stand in the street. With all the traffic it was too dangerous. They moved all the flowers to the church steps so people would also have a place to sit. The priest talked about it. He told a story about a florist who delivered a professional flower arrangement someone had sent. She wasn’t sure where to leave it as she had never been asked to deliver flowers to a street before. She was really choked up by it and Father Francis had to console her. He was already consoling all his parishioners, and he was grieving himself, but he gave the florist a hug.” My mom smiled warmly as she retold the story.

“I keep thinking about the woman driver,” I said. “I can’t believe she pleaded not-guilty.” The arraignment had been on Friday. “Why couldn’t she have said ‘Yes, I caused this. I am so very, very sorry. I accept the consequences of my actions.’ Why couldn’t she just be honest?”

Why can’t people admit fault? Why was her lawyer telling her not to speak? Instead he spoke for her, shooting poison arrows at empty excuses like, ‘Her brakes might have failed’ and ‘Her prescription medication might have been off.” Why do we have a legal system that doesn’t allow for integrity? If she could have simply said, “I’m sorry,” wouldn’t that help everyone in the aftermath? Wouldn’t that allow the families of the victims to move forward in their grieving process instead of being dragged down with legal battles? Wouldn’t the driver then be able to also move forward with her own life, a life that no matter how she pleads is forever changed. Whether in prison or free, she will carry the burden of ending four lives and altering the lives of countless others in that irreversible act, that one disastrous moment. At least one can hope she is cognizant enough to recognize how far-reaching and fatal the situation.

As if reading my ongoing thoughts, my mom continued, “Father Francis also preached about forgiveness. He even mentioned the driver by name: Margo.”

Forgiveness. Yes. Bad things happen. This Christmas carol crash happened. Sandy Hook happened. Marcus’s ill-formed heart causing a ruptured aorta happened. Daisy’s coyote attack happened. But the priest is right. The only path to compassion, the only real way to heal, is to forgive. And to accept that death, no matter how untimely or how tragic, will always, always, always be a part of life.

I’m going to drive over to St. James Church this afternoon (before I go over to my parents for dinner.) I’m bringing flowers and candles. My offerings may be less impactful or nourishing than the 250 apple pies we delivered to Newtown, but nothing could be greater or more well meaning than the prayer of love and forgiveness in my heart.

NOTE: St. James Church has set up a victims fund for the families. Click here to help:

15 thoughts on “Finding Forgiveness in the Face of a Christmas Tragedy

  1. Newtown is sending prayers to Redondo Beach as you all work towards healing and forgiveness. I hope the prayers will hold you up just as the world's prayers embraced Newtown two years ago. God Bless the families and friends of the victims and all who live in Redondo Beach.

  2. This was heart touching & well written. I agree with the need for integrity and forgiveness. Also praying for the heartbroken people and injured people in Redondo Beach.

  3. This and other events like it are indeed hard to take–harder for the loved ones. The explanations are never good enough. Without understanding, forgiveness is the best thing we have.

  4. Thanks for posting. As another Iowa expat (from Fairfield) who has family in the Newtown/Brookfield area of CT, and similar views about life, I appreciate reading about your kindnesses, your adventures.

  5. Such a tragic event for ALL! Prayers and condolences for the families involved! May the healing process be shortened as happy memories replace the sadness!

    No doubt, Margo is devastated by the event! I understand that her bail is set at $500,000. If so, is there a reason it is so high? I understand that she is handicapped with special needs. Are these needs being met while she is in jail now?

    I also understand that Margo has a clean driving record. Is there some reason she's considered a flight risk? Wasn't her car totaled?

    With no evidence back yet, including evidence from her vehicle, I'm shocked by the media's treatment of this woman, who loves all things related to Disney! People who know her vouch for her high moral character and her compassion. I'm frankly puzzled by the misrepresentation by the media and wonder where this opposite portrayal originated.

    Could it be that the driver herself may also be a victim of circumstance? Could she have had something very unusual happen in her vehicle to cause her control of it to be lost? I personally think its far too premature to publicly malign Margo. After all, a person is innocent until proven guilty. However, as currently seen in the wrongfully-convicted Koua Fong Lee v. Toyota case, a driver of an out-of-control vehicle is often a victim himself/herself.

    This accident was and will continue to be a devastating event for many. To every person involved, I hope that the truth will prevail! When the truth is made known, justice will be properly served and true healing can begin! God bless ALL the victims!

    Charlene McCarthy Blake

  6. Beth, you need to read and digest a comment I made regarding a big secret in the auto industry. I've included it in your blog comments. I believe that it is unfair to take one of the victims in this horrific tragedy, Margo Bronstein, and misrepresent her the way it was done here. It's unfair that she's been dehumanized and defamed without one shred of evidence presented!

    You made the blog entry on December 22. You no doubt NOW know that Margo does not drink alcoholic beverages and that she has a totally CLEAN driving record! Sadly, I don't see a retraction of the rush-to-judgement statements made. Such statements in error are reputation-destroying and libelous.

    I've been involved in auto consumer issues for the past twenty years. I've seen many propagandist efforts to distract attention away from faulty vehicles. These efforts always include making the driver in a horrific crash out to be someone he/she is NOT. It's interesting that you claim Margo isn't being "honest," yet you brutally label her in an effort to create hatred toward her.

    First, making an analogy between Margo Bronstein and the mentally ill youth responsible for the Newtown deaths is absurd! Margo did nothing intentionally and she has no history of mental illness. Why on earth would you be trying to portray her this way?

    Next, you speak about "honesty" but yet you are being far from honest yourself! If Margo pleads "not guilty," it's because she knows something YOU do NOT know. When the time is right, she will give that information. Obviously, whatever she says or does will be closely scrutinized! Look what deductions you've made without having any evidence presented yet! Margo must proceed cautiously because, as we've noted here, words will be twisted and distortions made no matter what she says. YOU are not her jury; WE are not her jury. She has a right to a trial and she is INNOCENT until proven guilty. However, your blog entry implies just the opposite. Again, that's unfair.

    Margo is a human, just like the rest of us. She shares our emotions, our fears, our joy. She is devastated about what happened. Should she suffer more based on your unsupported assessment of her? OR should she be given the benefit of the doubt until evidence is presented? How do you expect her to be "honest" until you give her due process time?

    All of Margo's friends think very highly of her. They say she has child-like, lovable qualities. She's a practicing Christian who is active in her church. She's upbeat and visits Disneyland weekly or more! As a matter of fact, she just celebrated her birthday there the week before the accident! By all accounts, she loves life…despite her disabilities!

    I'm sorry but I can't help but question your motive here. Why is so important to imply that she is something that she's not? Why is important to manipulate public perception of her before she's had her day in court? Why so you need or state that she's being dishonest when she is NOT? Why are you actively maligning her publicly? I feel a response is needed. Blogs are a form of freedom of speech; public defamation is NOT a right.

    There are many reasons a vehicle becomes out-of-control. You should know this because it has been all over the news in the last few years.

  7. There is a BIG hidden secret in the auto industry…it's called ELECTRONIC sudden unintended acceleration! I know…you thought that was just about FLOOR MATS and sticky pedals, or "driver error," right? That's certainly what TOYOTA would like you to continue to believe, BUT DON'T!

    These ultra-complex new engines are completely computer driven. Software is needed to control the throttle system. You THINK you are giving gas when you press the accelerator, but you are only SUGGESTING this to the computer. In electronic SUA cases, the throttle software may be glitch-prone and NOT do as you wish.

    What happens then? Well, the glitch may (and has for countless SUA victims) result in an OPEN THROTTLE situation. The brakes become INEFFECTIVE in these situations and crashes into storefronts, buildings, and homes have resulted.

    What does the automaker say? They hook the vehicles up to the computer and declare NOTHING WRONG! They cite the EDR which has erroneous data and say YOU were NOT braking. They point the finger at you based on AGE, GENDER, MEDICAL history, prescription meds, etc. YOU name it, they've TRIED it!

    Get the picture? And you THOUGHT the GM issue was big? Think again! This cover-up of ELECTRONIC SUA is scandalous and very well-orchestrated.

    Why even a WHISTLEBLOWER has been legally harassed by Toyota as it does NOT want her Toyota internal docs posted online anymore. The automaker wants to intimidate and SILENCE her. It doesn't want the PUBLIC involved, for goodness sake!

    Charlene Blake

  8. While I am sorry for your own losses I feel like your own grief is clouding your judgement.

    The reason people can't say "I'm sorry" is because that is taken as an admission of guilt even if it means I'm sorry this unavoidable tragedy happened.

    In this country we are innocent until proven guilty and all the facts have not come out. The car has to be investigated. Brakes fail. Unintended acceleration has caused the ruin of many lives some of which are still not pieced back together because people like you assume guilt. If you're behind the wheel of a car it MUST be your fault. I hope it never happens to you.

    No one bothers to stop and think what would you do if your breaks went out or if your car suddenly accelerated. The smart thing to do is to try to avoid hitting anything as long as possible. Unfortunately that only lasts so long.

    People have said she was drunk despite being a teetotaler. People have said it's because of medication despite the fact that those of us who know margo know how careful she is and often wont go out after taking medication if she even suspects something could be wrong.

    Cars break. People have reactions to medication, or even food! My friend went to a buffet and on their way home had a horrid allergic reaction and never had allergies before. Ended up in the ER but thankfully wasn't driving.

    You can have a bad reaction to ANYTHING even things that you've never had a reaction to before. Tylenol, Asprin, anti-biotics, are all things you are perfectly safe driving under but are also things people have had sudden and sometimes fatal reactions to with no explanation.

    This is why it is INNOCENT until proven guilty.

    It's great that you feel compassion for people in need. We all do. Margo has more compassion for people than anyone I know, myself included. It's just so sad that your good intentions are tainted by judgement. I would suggest some deep soul searching and maybe even grieving for your own losses before you start condemning people you don't know in a situation where the facts haven't all come out.

    I wish you well and hope in the future you will wait before you jump on the public opinion bandwagon which more often than not resembles that of a lynch mob.

  9. I haven't seen any evidence of malice or negligence on Margo's part, and the rumor that she was drunk seems to have been completely incorrect. Charlene Blake makes excellent points – I don't see any excuse for keeping this lady with special needs in jail, nor does it seem reasonable to set her bond at half a million dollars.

  10. Beth, your writing about Margo someone who is disable and someone who you do not know and spreading rumors and poisoning minds. I am sure Margo did not wake that day deciding to go out, kill, and injure people. Charlene is making lot of excellent points in her comments regarding automakers, please read them before you judge someone. I am myself a victim of Lexus which took off due to electronic problems going over 100 miles an hour and 5 years after my accident I found out about Toyota and Lexus sudden unintended acceleration. I am very lucky that I was the only one who was injured badly in the crash where my car came to stop hitting another car head on. As I was reading your comments regarding Margo I realized that your whole purpose must be advertising your pie business. What an awful comment to make about a disable human being.

  11. I came upon the words of Beth today, July 3, 2015. So well written. Well written because her compassion, love, pain, helplessness, frustration, and warmth was felt in every word. She spoke from her heart not from anger or rage. It made me think. It should have had that same effect on everyone. Words that cause you to ask yourself if there is forgiveness in your own heart. Her biggest words were the ones of honesty. But people these days lack integrity. Beth knows that. She wrote about it. As I scrolled down, I wasn't surprised to find more nasty comments from the one and only… Charlene McCarthy Blake. You can find her comments on other site. Someone who obviously is incapable of emotion aside from rage. And another, Azar Hadi. Same rage. These two must be friends of Margo. Birds of a feather flock together. I won't waste my time on them. They don't get it. I do. So my words go to Beth. Thank you Beth, thank you for speaking from you heart.

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