In 1985, Wilma Derk­sen faced the unimag­in­able: the mur­der of her young daugh­ter. Three decades later, she looks back on her com­pli­cated jour­ney out of the dark­ness


Wilma Derk­sen faced up to the unimag­in­able – the mur­der of her 13-year-old daugh­ter. FROM THE BOOK THE WAY OF LET­TING GO

At the end of the most hor­rific day, Jan­uary 17, 1985, there was a knock on the door of our home in Win­nipeg, Canada. It was 10pm.

I opened the door, and there was a stranger in black stand­ing against the dark night.

“I, too, am a par­ent of a mur­dered child,” he said, in­tro­duc­ing him­self. I could feel the blood drain from my face.

I was now a par­ent of a mur­dered child. At around noon, we had heard that the body of Can­dace, our 13-yearold daugh­ter, had been dis­cov­ered by an em­ployee of Al­sip Brick, Tile and Lum­ber Com­pany as he was check­ing an aban­doned shed on the yard.

Who was this man at our door? Ev­ery stranger was now a suspect. Ev­ery­one was a po­ten­tial murderer.

“I have come to tell you what to ex­pect next,” he said.

It was hard to be­lieve that only seven weeks ago we had been an un­known, un­no­ticed, happy fam­ily. Cliff, my hus­band, was a pro­gramme di­rec­tor for one of the largest sum­mer camps in our home prov­ince of Man­i­toba, and we had three chil­dren: Can­dace was our old­est, Odia was nine and Syras was three. I was work­ing my way into a jour­nal­ism ca­reer.

Can­dace had called from school that Fri­day to ask for a lift home. Or­di­nar­ily I would have picked her up, but I was run­ning late. I asked her if she wouldn’t mind walk­ing, so that by the time she re­turned, I would be fin­ished with my writ­ing project. I promised to buy party food for her sleep­over that week­end.

When she didn’t come through the door at the ex­pected time, a lit­tle af­ter 4pm, I had a sink­ing feel­ing. I quickly packed up the younger chil­dren and drove down the street look­ing for her. Then I went to pick up Cliff from the of­fice. Once home, we started call­ing all of her friends and our friends and fam­ily un­til we ex­hausted our leads. Around 10pm we called the po­lice.


dis­ap­pear­ance sparked Win­nipeg’s most com­pre­hen­sive miss­ing per­son search to date. We plas­tered the city with posters read­ing “Have you seen Can­dace?” For seven weeks we pleaded with the pub­lic to help us find her, ex­pos­ing our shat­tered lives. Now that her body had been dis­cov­ered, we knew for cer­tain some­one had ab­ducted her, taken her to a shed, tied her hands and feet, and left her there

to die in the plung­ing tem­per­a­tures of the win­ter’s first ex­treme cold front.

We were ex­hausted; it had been a full day al­ready. Af­ter hear­ing from the po­lice, we drove to the hospi­tal morgue to iden­tify her body. Af­ter that, friends had come by with food and words of com­fort.

Now this stranger had ap­peared with the prom­ise of an­swers to ques­tions we were just be­gin­ning to ask.

“My daugh­ter was mur­dered, too,” he be­gan. That’s when we recog­nised him from past TV news re­ports. It was a well-known lo­cal story. There were no tears as he spoke. But then again, I could talk about my daugh­ter with­out tears as well. Sometimes I cried un­con­trol­lably; other times I was emo­tion­less.

“She was mur­dered at the dough­nut shop,” he con­tin­ued. He seemed to have told his story many times.

As he spoke, I kept won­der­ing what had com­pelled him to come to our house late at night.

He said he couldn’t work any more be­cause he couldn’t fo­cus on any­thing but the mur­der of his daugh­ter. He told us ev­ery de­tail about the day she was killed. He pulled out a col­lec­tion of black note­books. He had recorded all the court pro­ceed­ings, metic­u­lously and in de­tail.

“I won’t rest un­til there is jus­tice.” He kept shak­ing his head, “I’ve lost so much – ev­ery­thing.” And then he paused. “I’ve even lost the mem­ory of my daugh­ter.”

The act of mur­der had taken his daugh­ter, but the af­ter­math of mur­der had taken his life. The worst part was that there was no end in sight for him.

We sat stunned and hor­ri­fied. I couldn’t be­lieve his au­dac­ity – telling us this on the worst day of our lives. Yet I lis­tened in­tently, sens­ing there had to be a rea­son for his com­ing.

I knew the po­ten­tial ef­fects of this trauma on our mar­riage and re­la­tion­ships. I knew the dam­age that could be caused by this publicity we’d so des­per­ately cul­ti­vated and that would now re­main fo­cused on us.

I was ob­sessed with watch­ing the neigh­bours. I sus­pected ev­ery­one of hav­ing some­thing to do with

I sus­pected our neigh­bours – ev­ery­one – of hav­ing some­thing to do with Can­dace’s death

Can­dace’s dis­ap­pear­ance. I couldn’t read, eat or breathe with­out pain. Sleep was elu­sive.

I knew ex­actly what this strange man was talk­ing about.

At mid­night, our vis­i­tor left, and my hus­band and I went to bed. We were scared. We’d just lost our child. Were we go­ing to lose ev­ery­thing? Was this the be­gin­ning of a spi­ral that would leave us dark, des­per­ate and in­sen­si­tive to ev­ery­thing around us? There had to be an­other way.

LIGHTS FROM THE TV cam­eras had dimmed, and I thought the press con­fer­ence was over. We had talked en­tirely about our daugh­ter – re­lieved that we had found her, shocked that she had been mur­dered, and thank­ful for ev­ery­one who had been search­ing for her. Just as we were about to leave, some­one asked the question.

“And what about the per­son who mur­dered your daugh­ter?”

The reporter’s question hung in the air as we just sat there.

We were in a fog. We had been plan­ning Can­dace’s fu­neral. I will never for­get go­ing into the dis­play room filled with coffins. Can­dace will sud­denly show up and tell us to stop this nonsense, I kept think­ing. But it was real.

Driv­ing back home, as Cliff and I re­viewed our de­ci­sions re­gard­ing the fu­neral, we started fight­ing.

The ar­gu­ment made us all the more wor­ried we were head­ing for emo­tional dis­as­ter, for the same tor­ment as our 10pm stranger. For me, it was some­thing I called the abyss.

I had faced it at the age of 30, seven years be­fore Can­dace dis­ap­peared.

We were liv­ing in a small town in Saskatchewan. Cliff had just ac­cepted a posit ion as pas­tor of a small church, and I thought I would fi­nally be free to pur­sue my dreams. Since I had sup­ported him through col­lege, it was now my turn to fin­ish univer­sity – but we had two lit­tle girls who needed my full attention.

Sud­denly I was over­whelmed with a sad­ness I didn’t un­der­stand. I had a won­der­ful hus­band and de­light­ful chil­dren, but I could barely get through the days.

The ar­gu­ment made us wor­ried we were head­ing for emo­tional dis­as­ter. It was some­thing I called the abyss

My abyss would not be de­nied. Liv­ing in a new com­mu­nity, I felt trapped at home with­out any so­cial sup­ports in place. Throw in a lit­tle post­par­tum de­pres­sion, and I knew I was in a dan­ger­ous place.

The only way I could deal with it was to sneak out at night when my fam­ily was sound asleep – safe – and get into our car and race across the prairie. I needed to feel as if I were fly­ing.

“Let go,” I must have told my­self a mil­lion times. “Don’t hang on. Let the past go and find some­thing new.”

THE TERM ‘FOR­GIVE’ de­rives from ‘to give’ or ‘to grant’, as in ‘to give up’. To me, it has al­ways meant re­lin­quish­ing my right to do what comes nat­u­rally and to de­lib­er­ately choose what my re­sponse will be. Sometimes the out­come is the same, but the process is different. Most of­ten, there are new, as­ton­ish­ing re­sults.

From a young age, through my Men­non­ite roots, I had learned that for­give­ness was a vi­able opt ion. I had learned it wasn’t a mir­a­cle drug but a process that de­manded pa­tience, cre­ativ­ity, faith, hu­mil­ity and a deep love.

Now the reporter’s question was hang­ing in the air: “And what about the per­son who mur­dered your daugh­ter?” Cliff was the f irst to ­an­swer it. He said it with as­sur­ance: “We for­give.”

I would do the only thing I knew how to do; I would let go. But this t ime I was fac­ing an abyss far more dan­ger­ous than the one I had ­es­caped be­fore.

I en­vied my hus­band’s con­fi­dence; I still do. I am a re­luc­tant for­giver – a de­ter­mined but re­luc­tant for­giver who needs a lot of time. I an­swered the question hon­estly. “I want to for­give.”

I was stunned the next day that our at­ti­tude was what had grabbed the attention of the city. I had thought the stories would fo­cus on the mur­der. They didn’t.

Af­ter the fu­neral, we were again shocked as the news­pa­per head­lines – both pa­pers, front page – jumped out at us. “Peace Tri­umphs!” said the Win­nipeg Sun, which de­voted the first four pages to our story. The piece

I didn’t want God to know I had other chil­dren. I couldn’t en­trust them to a God who had let Can­dace die

in the Win­nipeg Free Press cen­tred on Can­dace. Both sug­gested that some­how, in all of this tragedy, good had tri­umphed.

AT FIRST I re­mem­ber be­ing so con­fi­dent about God. I had no choice re­ally – ev­ery­thing was out of con­trol and we needed a higher power. But over the years, slowly, surely, my re­sent­ment grew. God hadn’t helped us find Can­dace when it was crit­i­cal. When her body was dis­cov­ered, he didn’t help us find the per­son re­spon­si­ble. When the lies and in­nu­en­does were swirling re­gard­ing our fam­ily’s pos­si­ble in­volve­ment in her death, he didn’t pro­vide res­o­lu­tion. When it came to the real is­sues, like good and evil, he had left the build­ing a long time ago.

We shouldn’t be sur­prised if the crim­i­nal vi­o­la­tion of so­ci­ety’s moral code and so­cial con­tract calls into question the or­der of the uni­verse and the role of God in all of this. But anger to­wards God can re­sult in a dread­ful dark­ness.

I re­mem­ber driv­ing home one day in 1990, wor­ried about Odia. Now that she was a teenager, she was man­i­fest­ing the usual angst.

What to do about Odia? My fall­back po­si­tion was al­ways to pray. But I couldn’t.

I was puz­zled. I had no trou­ble pray­ing for Can­dace’s le­gacy; and my work as vic­tims’ ad­vo­cate; so why didn’t I want to pray for Syras or Odia? Then I re­alised I didn’t want God to know I had other chil­dren. I wouldn’t en­trust them to a God who had let Can­dace die.

In deal­ing with doubt and anger to­wards God, we have two op­tions, de­pend­ing on our the­ol­ogy. If we think God is in con­trol of ev­ery­thing that hap­pens, we would have to for­give him and as­sume he made a mis­take. How­ever, if we be­lieve God didn’t make a mis­take, we might have to recog­nise that, though he’s the cre­ator of the uni­verse and con­trols the sci­ence of our world, he has given us free­dom of choice. Life hap­pens. Evil ex­ists.

IT WAS 22 YEARS af­ter Can­dace’s mur­der. I was just about to call Cliff when I no­ticed his van pull up the drive­way. We were ex­pect­ing the po­lice; they were com­ing to tell us some­thing. We had been in con­tact with them over the years, but there was some­thing different about this visit.

A few mo­ments later, three of­fi­cers were at our door.

“We found him,” one po­lice of­fi­cer said. “We found the man who mur­dered Can­dace.” They were wait­ing for a re­sponse. “Are you sure?” I said fi­nally. “Yes.” I looked at each one of them sep­a­rately. They all nod­ded. “Do we know him?” “No, you don’t,” said the man who started the con­ver­sa­tion.

He leaned slightly for­ward. “And I just want to let you know it isn’t any­one known to your fam­ily.”

“No one we know,” I re­peated, in dis­be­lief. “Aren’t you re­lieved?” We nod­ded. Our poor, trau­ma­tised minds could not ab­sorb it.

They told us they would be pick­ing him up in two to six weeks and that they had a team of 12 of­fi­cers work­ing on the case. We talked about ev­ery de­tail, again and again. Could jus­tice be a pos­si­bil­ity af­ter all this time?

OVER THE YEARS I’ve be­come con­vinced that we need to teach the way of for­give­ness as an op­tion. But re­search shows that even though peo­ple think this ap­proach is im­por­tant, not many know how to en­act it.

In 1997, I was in­vited to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., for a dis­cus­sion on for­give­ness or­gan­ised by Neigh­bors Who Care and Prison Fel­low­ship Min­istries. I had just be­gun my re­search in earnest and was look­ing for ideas to help crime vic­tims heal. I thought that if I found the right def­i­ni­tion of ‘for­give­ness’, I could de­velop a won­der­ful pro­gramme of heal­ing and jus­tice.

I hoped I would find it at this two­day meet­ing of learned the­olo­gians. But as the pro­ceed­ings un­folded, I be­came anx­ious. Even though the words were beau­ti­ful, there was

noth­ing for the group of crime vic­tims at home await­ing my re­turn.

Half an hour be­fore we were to leave, some­one asked, “Have we ­de­fined for­give­ness yet?”

The room was quiet. There were some valiant at­tempts to sum­marise the dis­cus­sions, but from where I was sit­ting, they all fell flat.

It was still dark when I climbed into the back seat of the taxi at 5am the next day, mis­er­able.

“Good morn­ing,” the driver called out as I en­tered the cab. He started to chat­ter, but I didn’t re­spond, ­of­fer­ing only the oc­ca­sional an­swer.

Fi­nally he paused. “I’m sorry for talk­ing on and on like this,” he said softly, “but you are the first sober fare I’ve had all night.”

I apol­o­gised. I told him I hadn’t had my cof­fee. I ex­plained I was dis­ap­pointed in the con­fer­ence – I just wanted to be with my fam­ily.

He nod­ded. He said he un­der­stood. When he found out my work cen­tred around homi­cide is­sues, he seemed in­ter­ested. So I asked him why D.C., where he lived, had the high­est rate of ­mur­der in all of North Amer­ica.

He fell silent. Then he said, “My broth­ers are still an­gry be­cause of the years of slav­ery, the racism in this coun­try and the poverty. This anger shows it­self in vi­o­lence.”

Even though he was iden­ti­fy­ing with his peo­ple, de­scrib­ing great sor­row and pain, he spoke with­out rage or bit­ter­ness.

I couldn’t re­sist. I asked him the burn­ing question. “Why aren’t you an­gry?”

He said sim­ply, “I be­lieve in for­give­ness.” My heart stopped. With­out any fur­ther prompt­ing, he ex­plored this idea with an elo­quence I hadn’t heard be­fore or since. He talked about the beauty of be­ing set free, of let­ting go of the past, em­brac­ing the mo­ment and an­tic­i­pat­ing the fu­ture.

In sim­ple terms, he was able to ac­com­plish what we’d failed to do in the pre­vi­ous days. He not only de­scribed for­give­ness, he ra­di­ated the word. By the time I reached the air­port, I felt like a new per­son. In that mo­ment, I knew that for­give­ness doesn’t need to be de­fined to be lived and felt.

HOW DOES THIS jour­ney in for­give­ness end? I re­mem­ber a day when, af­ter hear­ing me tell my story in a church, one woman looked at me with a mea­sure of im­pa­tience. “Well, have you for­given the murderer? Have you met with him?”

I hes­i­tated. I have met with the man, fig­u­ra­tively. I have met with him al­most daily since our daugh­ter was taken. There seems to be a hid­den is­sue in each day that re­minds me of my loss and can take me right back to that ini­tial pain.

But, no, I have not met face-to-face with the man ac­cused of Can­dace’s mur­der – and I’ve dis­cov­ered that it is not nec­es­sary in or­der to for­give.

In Oc­to­ber 2017, a sec­ond trial con­cluded, and the ac­cused was ac­quit­ted of sec­ond-de­gree mur­der. So now, 33 years af­ter Can­dace’s mur­der, we re­ally have res­o­lu­tion.

Where does this leave my hus­band and me? Amaz­ingly, we find our­selves at peace. Ac­tu­ally, we feel a great re­lief that the trial process, which lasted ten years, is fi­nally over, and we can now truly get on with our lives. We al­ways knew that jus­tice wouldn’t bring Can­dace back to us; it wasn’t go­ing to be per­fect.

Yet we are grate­ful for the process, which an­swered so many of our ques­tions, and the mon­u­men­tal ef­fort of ev­ery­one in the sys­tem, which was a con­stant and im­por­tant re­minder to all of us that mur­der is al­ways wrong, and that the life of our child – and ev­ery child – is im­por­tant.

So in the end, for us per­son­ally, our child’s mur­der was never about res­o­lu­tion but about over­com­ing its im­pact and to make some­thing good come of it. This is what for­give­ness looks like for us.

Re­cently, at the end of a tir­ing but won­der­ful day, I looked across the bed at Cliff, grate­ful for the time spent with our chil­dren and their lit­tle ones. “I am re­ally happy,” I said to him. He looked at me. “I am too.”

Sur­prised, we said, “Let’s not tell any­one.” We felt guilty for be­ing so happy. It was as if we were be­tray­ing Can­dace.

But then we caught our­selves – again. Can­dace was thriv­ing. Even though our daugh­ter had been mur­dered, she was still alive. Her mem­ory and le­gacy were more pow­er­ful than any of ours.

Hav­ing scraped the bottom of life as we had, there is noth­ing more di­vine than to resur­face into the sun­shine and feel that warmth, that heal­ing and that beauty. On top of the feel­ing of full­ness, there is a sense of vic­tory.

We have seen the worst ; fear was gone. We were so thank­ful for ev­ery­thing, even the ex­pe­ri­ence of sur­viv­ing a tragedy.

Grat­i­tude brings more hap­pi­ness, as hap­pi­ness brings grat­i­tude. It is a won­der­ful cy­cle – a vor­tex for good rather than the abyss.

Can­dace (right) shown with her fa­ther, Cliff, and her sis­ter, Odia, in 1978

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