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Mercy in the midst of pain: a story of tragedy and forgiveness

Sacred Sorrows is honored to publish this profound story of mercy and forgiveness, written by Joell Mower, a deeply engaged member of Sacred Sorrows, founder of DomiNic's Place, and a strong force for good and peace. Joell’s story addresses the death of her adult son Dominic and the ensuing journey that Joell found herself thrust into as she navigated the years that followed. This story is important and powerful, heartrending and healing. Thank you, Joell, for your witness. (Originally published in The Transformational Journey, produced by Kyle Wilson International 2023.)



A Phone Call


It was a few minutes before 3:00 a.m., on July 25, 2012, and I had just awakened from a sound sleep when the phone rang. Ken, my husband of 35 years, answered the call and was on for a few minutes with his back to me before hanging up. As he turned around, I caught a glimpse of his face in the shadows and knew the news was not good. We had experienced troubling calls before, as our son Dominic suffered from the disease of addiction and had been known to reach out to us at all hours. I felt my chest tighten. We thought he was doing well, so hearing the phone ring at that hour was especially worrisome.


The caller was a neighbor of Dominic’s. She told us there were police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances at the shop where he lived and worked. She had heard there was a shooting. Even with our past experiences, we were unprepared to receive a message like this. Dominic was not a violent person and, as far as we knew, did not own a gun. I still wonder at my strange thought at that moment: What would be worse? Knowing our son had been shot or knowing he had shot someone else?


Ken and I decided not to make the 20-minute drive to the shop and wait to hear more. Looking back, I think we were afraid of what we might discover. I do not remember what Ken did while waiting for the next call. My world and focus had narrowed, and I was restless, unable to take a deep breath or stay in one place. I said a chaplet, a prayer, as I paced. The Chaplet of Divine Mercy had been given to me just a few months before, and I did not yet know how powerful God’s mercy is, what His promises would mean to me, or why He wanted me to have them.


The Miracle


I answered the phone when it rang the second time. I will never forget. I heard the detective say, “There is no easy way to tell you this…your son has passed.” Dominic had been shot and killed.


Time stood still. I could not breathe or feel.


Then, almost immediately, a miracle happened. As I closed my eyes, I saw the words: Pray for the person who did this. Without thinking, I followed the instructions that would change my life and the murderer’s as well. In that moment of prayer, I was able to forgive and feel compassion for the person who murdered our son.


Mercy


How I wished my act of forgiveness had the power to alleviate the excruciating pain that engulfed me. I would soon learn on a very deep level what Dominic used to call the “two-foot drop.” It is the process of our consciousness transcending the “thoughts in our minds’’ to the “feelings, trust, and knowing in our hearts.” I would come to experience and comprehend how merciful God is and how He always gives us exactly what we need when we need it if we pay attention and are open to His help. I do not remember telling Ken the news of Dom’s death or what his reaction was.


Even so, there are some details forever etched in my memory of that day: watching our daughter vomit in anguish when she heard her brother was dead, the 90-minute drive to my hometown to tell my mother what happened, and holding her up as she collapsed while hearing my brothers cry out in shock and pain.


During our visit to the police department later that same day, we learned about a young woman who was shot along with Dominic. She had survived major injuries and was in the hospital. She insisted on speaking with us to let us know Dominic had attempted to save her life and that she would ensure the murderer would be apprehended and brought to justice.


Survival


After finally arriving home late that evening and needing some sort of normalcy, Ken and I decided to take our dog for a walk. I was struck by the first of many new truths as we moved through the quiet, deserted streets under the stars. I turned to Ken and said, “We’ve experienced our worst nightmare as parents today, and we are still standing.”

The “two-foot drop” from my head to my heart became a part of my daily reality as we moved through the next days, weeks, and months. I was reminded repeatedly of how God’s love and care are manifested through the presence of revelations, experiences, and people in my life. I learned men grieve differently than women, and each person has their own grief timeline.


The successful navigation of my relationships with Ken, our daughter, extended family, and friends was not to be expected or taken for granted. Even getting out of bed each day was a major decision. God did not promise to remove the always present, numbing pain and the daily challenge of missing Dominic. He did, however, provide a roadmap to healing and hope. The gift of forgiveness was to play a very big part in that journey.


I was told 600 people attended Dominic’s funeral Mass to show their love for us and for Dominic. I heard there were undercover police officers in attendance, hoping to see people of interest in the investigation. I remember removing my sunglasses. I wanted to look into each person’s eyes and be as fully present as possible.


After Mass, a long line of people of all ages waited to tell me how much Dom’s friendship had helped them and what a positive difference he had made in their lives. I missed most of the reception as I listened to each heart-healing testimonial.


Along with his death, the news reports concentrated on Dominic’s past transgressions. As Ken wrote in his impact statement, “It would be superficial for someone who did not know Dominic personally to look at the facts of this case and his history and draw conclusions. We have learned a person’s life is so much more than what may be depicted in a newspaper or contained in a crime report.”


We also recognized there would be no winners in our situation. As the mother of the person who took our son’s life sat alone on the courthouse bench, we reached out to let her know we understood that two mothers lost their sons that day.


Help and Support


I am a realtor by profession, and Ken and I have attended a personal growth conference, Mastermind, almost every August for the past 20 years. It had only been three weeks since Dominic was killed, but his funeral had taken place, and we decided to attend that year, knowing the message would be uplifting and we would be surrounded by people who cared about us.


It seemed like a good idea until we stood outside the convention center. I froze for a few moments as I looked up at the huge building and all the people. Taking a deep breath, I held Ken’s hand, and we went inside together. I do not recall exactly how we shared the traumatic experience of Dom’s death with our friends there, but I do remember being enveloped with love and compassion. Looking back, I believe my years of attending Mastermind and other conferences and the lessons I learned as a result were preparatory tools for navigating the tragedy awaiting me.


As suggested by several people at home, we also attended Grief Share. I was angered by what they termed the “new normal” because I knew nothing would ever be normal again. Right after Dom died, I felt isolated as it was hard for me to imagine that anyone else had ever suffered or felt the excruciating pain I was experiencing. I did not consider taking my own life to end the torment, but I was ambivalent about living. I could not come out of myself to realize Ken, our daughter, and other family members were also in agony and needed me to be there for them. The seven other couples who had lost children in our Grief Share group helped me to realize everything was not about me as they shared their heartaches. Through them, I was challenged to comfort and be present for others while my heart broke.


Attending the Mastermind conference and the eight weeks of Grief Share helped us prepare for the preliminary hearing, which would determine if there was enough evidence to take the man accused of Dominic’s murder, whom I will call MM, to a full jury trial. The preliminary hearing ended with the judge ordering MM to stand trial. Some of the testimony was graphic and extremely painful to hear. The young woman who was shot with Dominic was able to identify MM, and her courageous documentation was directly responsible for his conviction. There was also a recorded phone conversation where MM admitted to killing Dom and trying to kill her.


Conquering a Heart


In August of the next year, Ken and I were in San Diego attending the same Mastermind conference. The jury trial was scheduled to begin the day after we returned home. We received a phone call from the prosecuting attorney. MM had decided not to go to trial, had agreed to a plea bargain of 64 years to life, and had pled guilty to first-degree murder, attempted murder, and special allegations of using a gun during the commission of the offenses.


Even though it was not a requirement, we were relieved our daughter and the young woman MM had attempted to kill both agreed with the plea bargain. Neither one wanted him to be free in their lifetimes. Still, the preliminary trial had been physically and emotionally arduous, and none of us were prepared to relive everything again in the public eye.


At sentencing, the family can read impact statements to the person who committed the crime against them. I prayed the night before, asking God what He wanted MM to know and to help me communicate it. I knew the Holy Spirit was guiding me as I wrote my statement.


The next morning, MM stood emotionless in the courtroom as Ken and I described how our lives had changed and what our family had endured due to his actions. As I read my statement, it was as if MM and I were the only two people in the room. Nothing I read seemed to affect him until I said, “I believe God is using me to tell you how much He loves you.” It was then that tears began to run down his cheeks. I told him I had been praying for him, even before I knew who he was, and had forgiven him through God's grace, not through my strength. I said that I was forgiving him for me. He had already taken our son, and I would not allow him to take the rest of my life, too, by drinking the poison of unforgiveness and expecting him to die. I said it would never be too late for him to change his life for the better and help others, even in prison.


My forgiveness does not mean I will ever forget what MM has done, believe what he did is okay, or hide or deny my feelings about what happened. It is something I did in my heart and is not dependent on him being sorry. It is leaving judgment to God, reinforcing my personal power, caring for my physical, mental, and spiritual health, and surrendering anger and blame. I received an incredible gift by praying for MM on the morning of Dominic’s death. Forgiving has brought me peace, joy, and hope amid the sorrow, grief, and pain. I have come to believe that mercy and forgiveness, while often considered weaknesses, are the world's most powerful “weapons” because they can conquer otherwise untouchable hearts.


New Normal


MM and I now write letters to each other, and I have continued to pray for him. While he did not initially believe I had forgiven him, he now accepts it. He has written to me about how he has remained clean and sober to honor me and my family. He is taking classes to become a counselor to help others like him in prison and is training service dogs, something at which he has become quite accomplished. He seldom complains about his circumstances and always tries to be upbeat.


I cannot help but think how different the outcome of this story might have been for MM and for me if I had not chosen to forgive him. My greatest gift was the ability to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet at the hour of Dominic’s death, allowing MM and Dominic to experience the unfathomable Mercy of Jesus. After all these years, I have a glimpse of what my “new normal” is. I know I will always be sad on some level, and the gift of tears is never far from the surface. Holidays, Dom’s birthday, and the anniversary of his death are always challenging. I have difficulty with small talk and tend to go deep very quickly. I have chosen to celebrate and even search for joyful moments and not feel guilty, as if I am somehow dishonoring Dominic by being happy. I know he would want that for me. Choosing to feel happiness helps me to heal.


I wake up most mornings with gratitude for what I have rather than hopelessness for what I am missing. Most of all, instead of wanting to die, I’ve asked God for at least ten more years to see our grandchildren grow up, witness our daughter, who is also a realtor, thrive and heal, and celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary with Ken. I love to talk about Dominic to whoever will listen. Bringing him up in conversation does not make me sad, as there will always be sadness on some level, nor remind me of his death, something I will never forget. I am humbled to know my wounds cannot develop scars without the love and help of others and sharing our stories.


I have founded DomiNic’s Place, a non-profit to honor Dom and to prevent other parents from experiencing the loss of a child. Our mission is to create a community where young people can feel safe, find hope, and receive healing for wounded hearts and where their unique gifts are recognized and encouraged. The vision is to enable young people to contribute positively to their communities by providing tools, resources, and mentors that build their self-worth and purpose in an environment of forgiveness, encouragement, and acceptance. We are collaborating with another non-profit, Youth Recovery Connection, to save lives through prevention and recovery services.


At DomiNic’s Place, there is a “Forgiveness Wall” in the entry with a picture of MM and the word Forgiven. The young people we serve will be encouraged to post the names of people they want to forgive or from whom they would like to receive forgiveness. Like MM, they will be asked to leave any harmful deeds behind them and to choose a new life, making a positive difference for others and themselves.


I am also a member of Sacred Sorrows, an incredible resource for mothers and grandmothers whose children have died. “Where deep grief meets the mystery of grace.” The retreats they offer, both virtual and in-person, are a safe and sacred place of healing in a shared community like no other I have experienced since Dominic’s death.


Hope


I am working to create HOPE for myself and my family without Dom’s physical presence in our lives. His love and spirit will always be alive in our hearts, minds, and souls until we meet in Heaven. Sometimes, I ask God to give him a hug for me, even though I know he does not need it, because of how much I miss being able to hug him myself. If you have lost a child or loved one, I am hoping this story will bring you hope and will allow me to somehow walk by your side. I wish you a good life where you embrace relationships with people who are still with you and share stories of loved ones who have passed, where you experience joy along with sorrow, as they are both true and where, rather than allowing the toxicity of unforgiveness to hold you hostage, you embrace the healing powers of mercy and forgiveness.


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