Catholic News Service
Cheryl Wunsch was a new mother and a recently baptized Catholic when she received the awful news that sent her on a 39-year journey to healing and forgiveness.
Her parents had recently divorced, and she had been out of touch with her father. But one day, unexpectedly, he called.
“He told me my mother was murdered the night before,” Wunsch says. “A 17-year-old young man followed her into her apartment building. He went up in the elevator with her and stabbed her multiple times in front of her apartment door. Then, he dragged her into a stairwell and left her there. It was brutal.”
The suddenness of her loss was shocking and painful. Questions weighed heavily: Who was the young man? Why had he done this? And how could she, a newly baptized Christian, ever forgive him?
Wunsch’s mother was Catholic but converted to her father’s Judaism after marrying him. Growing up, there was not much religious tradition at home, but, says Wunsch, “I always longed to know God.”
When she married an Italian Catholic man and was expecting their first child, she visited with a parish priest. As they pored over the Book of Isaiah, says Wunsch, “I was hit by a thunderbolt — that he was talking about Christ, the Messiah. It was very real — one of those Holy Spirit moments. I was nine months pregnant when I was baptized — I couldn’t bend over the font!”
Her faith became the core of her ability to cope with her loss.
“Before my mother was murdered, I already had this profound understanding that Christ was God,” says Wunsch.
“Did I get angry? I stormed heaven with my anger. I lost my mother. My baby was an infant. I was a brand new Christian. It was a sudden, traumatic loss. I wanted God to know, ‘This is terrible. How could you let this happen?’ But God knows when we’re grieving. He loves us. He has big shoulders.”
Wunsch reached out to others for support.
“I had wonderful people around me, a spiritual director who guided me through grief, and I went through psychotherapy.”
But one wound was hard to heal.
“I was praying that I could forgive,” says Wunsch, “but as soon as I forgave, I took it right back. I couldn’t make myself forgive.”
Wunsch earned a master’s degree in counseling and raised her family. She started a prayer shawl ministry at her parish, donating the finished shawls to others who had suffered losses. Her pain lingered, but she continued praying she could forgive.
“God knew that I wanted to forgive,” she says, “and I believed it would work out eventually.”
Thirty-nine years after her mother’s murder, in what would be a life-changing meeting, Wunsch took Communion to a disabled parishioner named Anna, whom she did not know. In gentle, gradual conversation, Wunsch discovered that Anna knew the family of the young man who had murdered Wunsch’s mother. That visit and the many that followed provided crucial context for Wunsch to resolve the questions that had prevented her from being able to forgive.
“It was unbelievable,” says Wunsch. “God allowed that situation, where I brought (the) Eucharist to Anna. In meeting Anna, God took me to forgiveness.”
Today, Wunsch is a counselor in private practice in Southern California. She is a happy grandmother, active in her parish and as a Calmadolese Benedictine Oblate.
She gives retreats on forgiveness and has written a book, “Knitting, Praying, Forgiving: A Pattern of Love and Forgiveness.” In it, she combines her journey, the prayer practice of “lectio divina,” and knitting to encourage others to trust in God’s love, the strength of abiding faith and especially the grace of helping one another heal.
“We all need people to encourage and lift us up. We can’t do it alone,” says Wunsch. “Terrible things do happen, but that doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us. We need to help each other to see that.”
Pratt is a columnist for Catholic News Service. Her website is www.maureenpratt.com.
Healing a heart
Catholic News Service