In January 2011 I was asked to work with three people to facilitate a restorative dialogue (a.k.a. victim offender mediation) at Walla Walla prison in Washington State. The dialogue was filmed for Confronting on the Oprah Winfrey Network http://www.oprah.com/own-confronting/Colleen-Meets-Her-Husbands-Killer

Colleen Shapel’s husband Bob, who was also her best friend for most of her life, was senselessly murdered in a February 2004 robbery. Melissa, Colleen’s oldest daughter, and William Schorr, a co-defendant who plead guilty to the murder, also participated in the restorative dialogue (another defendant who was determined to be most responsible for the murder refused to participate).

After I was first contacted, and until the dialogue was finally conducted six months later in July, I spoke on the phone with Colleen, Melissa and William frequently. I met Colleen and Melissa in person several times a few days, and William a few hours, before the dialogue.

I felt my job was to mainly listen to their pain, and simply be present with them in their suffering.

All three had been struggling for seven years. Colleen was still deeply angry and resentful. No question that her feelings were absolutely justified and understandable, but her hostility was making her life miserable. “They took my best friend away,” she sobbed at William Schorr’s sentencing. “They took myself away. There are days I can’t even function.” Seven years later Melissa felt, “I lost my mother too and not just my father.”

Since the murder, William Schorr had attempted suicide three times. He was haunted by his participation, and the terrible harm he caused. He had basically given up on life and felt doomed to a life of regret and misery. His guilt and shame overwhelmed him. “I can never forgive myself for what I did. It is unforgiveable. It tears me up. I go to bed every night reliving what happen. I can’t sleep and don’t think I ever will be able. I deserve to.”

As my conversations continued over the months with each person, I listened and we talked about anything they wanted. Eventually the idea of forgiveness came up with Colleen.

The word forgiveness triggers many emotions for people. It means different things to different people. While some restorative justice practitioners and trainers reportedly advise facilitators and mediators to, “Never mention the F word” to people they work with, I openly discussed forgiveness with Colleen.

Initially she explosively said, “I can never forgive for this!” I explained my understanding to her. “Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting Bob or dishonoring him. It is never right to condone bad behavior. Forgiveness can simply be taking the energy it takes being resentful and angry, and instead putting it into something positive that you want in life.”

Fred Luskin’s wonderful book Forgive for Good teaches forgiveness as a life skill and stress reducer. I sent the book to Colleen after our first discussion about forgiveness. After she read the book, she said, “It’s not about people who’ve been through murders Lorenn, it’s about friends and stuff like that.” Colleen was not ready to forgive anyone for what happened to her husband, or her life.

I respected Colleen’s decision to be unforgiving. I believe all adults are the experts of their own lives and everyone knows what is best for themselves. Listening to people helps them figure out what they need and what they want. I only explained my understanding of forgiveness to Colleen. Being a lawyer and trained advocate, besides a health educator and facilitator, I did not want to influence or argue with Colleen that she should adopt my view, but I admit that I silently hoped someday she might come to see forgiveness the way Fred Luskin does.

The restorative dialogue was originally scheduled for June at Walla Walla prison, but it was abruptly canceled. “Prison security issues” arose after William’s bunk mate was allegedly found with marijuana in their cell. The prison administration canceled the meeting due to this infraction.

Colleen, Melissa and William were upset and shaken about the prison’s decision. Colleen especially felt re-victimized by the system that she thought should be protecting her. “How can his bunk mate stop me from meeting with Schorr? It’s all I’ve thought about for months. This can’t be happening,” she cried. A compelling and strong advocate, Colleen took her complaints to the prison administration.

William also felt defeated. While he feared meeting Colleen and Melissa, he desperately wanted them to have the opportunity to hear his answers to any of their questions about Bob’s last moments, and anything else that might help them. He went to his counselors and asked them to help get the meeting rescheduled. I also abandoned my mainly listener and facilitator role, and actively advocated for the meeting.

Reason and compassion prevailed. After about 3 weeks the prison administration reconsidered and allowed the restorative dialogue to be rescheduled. Everyone was relieved that the months spent preparing were not in vain, and there would be a chance for the three to meet and tell their stories. All were anxious about meeting. Bob’s loss would forever leave a wound, perhaps a scared wound at most. Knowing that they would meet gave all three a slight hope that some kind of healing might be possible.

The meeting occurred on a dark cloudy day, and took about 4 hours. They were some of the most intense hours I have ever witnessed. The dialogue and outcomes were “unbelievable” according to prison staff and other observers.

At the end of the meeting Colleen said she wasn’t “ready to forgive,” but she sobbed and tightly hugged William. Earlier she has said, “You seem like a nice guy.” “I’m sorry we’re meeting under these circumstances,” William replied.

Many of us cried during the dialogue including some strong looking men with many years experience as correctional officers. After Colleen hugged William, so did Melissa, and so did I. “It was the first time I was hugged in seven years,” said William afterwards.

I have kept in contact with Colleen, Melissa and William since the restorative dialogue and plan to indefinitely. Each one of their voices sounds stronger, they are more cheerful, and they are more hopeful about the future. “My life is completely changed for the better,” said Colleen. “It’s like my mom’s back” said Melissa. “I can sleep better,” said William.

Bob Shapel must never be forgotten, nor the horrible cause of his death. Restorative dialogues, victim offender mediations, and any restorative practice, absolutely do not need to lead to forgiveness. Colleen and Melissa’s compassion, extended after they met with William and saw he was not a “horrible monster,” however, has freed them to live happier lives. Their compassion has also allowed William too to find some meaning in his imprisonment, which now is about working to help other incarcerated people reenter the community and avoid the wrong choices he made. Finally their compassion has inspired many people, including me.

I will forever appreciate the Washington prison department for allowing this dialogue to occur (many prisons do not allow them at all); the Oprah Winfrey network for its work educating people about restorative justice; and Colleen, Melissa and William who were brave enough to face and share their pain so others might benefit.