SALT LAKE CITY — As Gary Ceran stood behind his smashed car, he could see the double body bag just a few feet away from him that contained his wife and son.
It was Christmas Eve 2006. Ceran's car had just been plowed into by an intoxicated driver. His wife, a son and a daughter were killed in an instant. With flashing red and blue lights illuminating the night, Ceran looked at his deceased loved ones and the Christmas presents strewn across the road.
In addition to the tremendous loss of life, he thought about the medical bills that would soon flood his mailbox, how he didn't have any insurance and wondered how he was even going to make it to the hospital to see his son who survived the crash.
"It was an utter sense of disparage and hopelessness," he said.
But as he was being loaded into an ambulance after being placed on a gurney, Ceran did the only thing he said he could do in that situation — forgive the driver that had just turned his world upside down.
Ceran's story of forgiveness made headlines during the months and years that followed. It's a story that has also inspired others whom he has never met.
Just six weeks after Ceran's tragic accident, Chris Williams was hit by an intoxicated teenage driver. In that crash, Williams' wife, their unborn child, a son and only daughter were killed.
Like Ceran, Williams offered the boy that hit his family forgiveness.
There have been several high-profile crimes and accidents in Utah in recent years in which a startling act of forgiveness was offered by the victim or the victim's family to the person who caused the traumatic event.
Most recently, an astonishing act of forgiveness was given during a capital murder case in Salt Lake County.
Paul David Vara was spared a sure death sentence when he pleaded guilty to murdering 45-year-old Kristine Marie Gabel in a Fairmont Park bathroom and raping another woman in Pioneer Park, leaving her with severe injuries.
The brutality of the crimes shocked even veteran police and court officials. The man had pulled internal organs from his victim's body.
Third District Judge Mark Kouris told Vara that animals didn't even treat each other the way he'd treated his victims.
Before Vara was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, Christian Schutz, Gabel's ex-husband, shocked many in the courtroom by telling Vara that despite the egregiousness of the crime and the nightmare he had put his family through, he forgave him.
"I believe it's what separates us from men like him," he said. "I am a man of faith. I believe it was the right thing to do."
Schutz noted it wasn't an easy decision to forgive.
As others who have explored the topic have noted, the fact that these acts of forgiveness surprise us is a reminder of how difficult an act it is.
According to a 2010 survey conducted for the Fetzer Institute, 62 percent of Americans believe they need more forgiveness in their personal lives and 90 percent believe we need more forgiveness in America.
Yet 58 percent of Americans believe there are certain crimes for which people should never be forgiven, the survey found. When those respondents were asked what specific crimes, 41 percent said murder, 26 percent abuse or sexual crimes, 10 percent said betrayal. And 22 percent said any intentionally committed crime should not be forgiven.
Additionally, 60 percent of Americans believe that forgiving someone would first depend on the offender apologizing and making changes.
For many crime victims who offer forgiveness to their perpetrators, it's a matter of letting go of the rage they feel toward the person who hurt them or their loved one — whether the offender is remorseful or not.
Brian David Mitchell was sentenced to life in federal prison for one of the highest-profile crimes ever in Utah history — kidnapping and sexually abusing then 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart. During his federal trial, graphic details of the daily abuse Elizabeth suffered were presented as evidence.
Mitchell showed no signs of remorse. But before Mitchell was sentenced, both Elizabeth and her father, Ed Smart, said they had forgiven him.
"We aren't going around with this hate that consumes people," Ed Smart recently told the Deseret News. "It's not allowing that anger and that hate that you have for the person to eat you alive. I think it can just be so totally consuming it can take over your life."
The decision by a victim to forgive their perpetrator is a "very personal" one, said University of Utah law professor and former federal judge Paul Cassell.
But he cautioned that forgiveness should not be confused with accountability.
By telling someone that they forgive them, Salt Lake defense attorney Greg Skordas said a victim isn't telling them that what they did was OK.
"They're saying, 'I don't love you, I don't have any respect for you, but I forgive you,'" he said. "They've moved on. They're above it. It shows a lot of thought. A willingness to move on."
Forgive not forget
Dr. David Derezotes, a professor at the University of Utah's College of Social Work, agreed that forgiving someone is not the same as condoning their actions.
"Nor does it mean you no longer remember it, because you can't un-remember it," he said. "You're no longer willing to be poisoned by that anger. The anger no longer serves you. It does not mean I'm OK with it."
Just because he has forgiven Mitchell, Ed Smart said he never wants the former street preacher to be free again.
"I have no doubt he would pick up where he left off," Smart said. "To me, forgiveness isn't just turning a blind eye to what someone has done. You don't live with hate ... you move beyond it. You find the incredible goodness that was given to us by people in the community and the prayers that were said."
Ceran has done extensive research on the act of forgiveness for a book he just finished writing, tentatively titled, "The Greatest Wonder: How My Life Has Been Blessed By Adversity." As part of his research, he found inspiration in a quote from an unknown author: "Forgiving is not forgetting. It's letting go of the hurt."
Since the accident, Ceran has remarried to a woman who had four children of her own. Together, they adopted three more children from the Ukraine, giving them a total of nine.
Ceran said today he has no regrets about forgiving the man who hit and killed his family. And, in fact, feels even stronger now that it was the right thing to do.
Power of forgiveness
The power of forgiveness was something that Ceran saw first hand as a boy growing up in an unexpected place. His father, from Turkey, had been raised with an eye-for-an-eye way of thinking. One day, his father learned his mother was having an affair.
Ceran said he was afraid of what his father might do to his mother. But rather than anger, the father told her that if she agreed to never see the man again, she could remain in the house and he would forgive her.
Forgiveness was something that Ceran said he had been taught his entire life, and the decision to forgive the man who killed his family wasn't difficult.
The blessings a person receives for forgiving someone are as great as the ones the person being forgiven receives, he said.
During sentencing, Ceran asked for a lighter sentence than what was being recommended for Carlos Rodolfo Prieto.
"If three funerals isn't enough to stop a guy from drinking and driving ...," Ceran said.
Prieto was sentenced to 10 years in prison and will likely be deported for being an illegal immigrant after his time is served.
The Christmas after the accident, Ceran visited Prieto at the state prison in Gunnison. He said the man — who had been depressed, lonely and had made the bad decision to drink and drive that night because his wife was going to leave him and take their young child — had completely changed.
"There was so much light in his eyes," Ceran said. "He was a strong, good person."
Because of Ceran's act of forgiveness, Prieto said he was able to forgive the man who had killed his father many years earlier.
Ceran said the community should not look down on Prieto because he is not an American citizen. "If the temple president had had a heart attack and hit my car, my family would still be dead," he said.
After Williams was involved in his accident, Ceran received a letter from him, which he still keeps today. Although the two had never met, both men understood what the other was going through.
In his letter, Williams apologizes for taking so long to write to Ceran, noting, "I'm sure our wives have already met and no doubt started a great friendship."
In 2010, a moving video filmed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for their "Mormon Messages" series was released featuring Williams. In it, Williams talks about his decision to forgive, Cameron White, the then 17-year-old boy who killed his family.
Williams said he "never felt so vulnerable" in his life as he did on the night of the accident.
"I saw her chest go down and her last breath leave her body and I wanted to cry out to her to come back. The next sound I heard was of me wailing and grieving they were gone," Williams said in the video. "Such a huge part of my life was gone."
Williams said his LDS faith and prayer helped him get through the tragedy. He said God listened to him first when he prayed, then let him get his anger out before responding.
"In my heart I didn't know or understand or comprehend how it had happened or the circumstances," he said. "The only thing I remember sensing and feeling was I needed to let this go."
The video also shows an interview with the driver, White, and the first time he met Williams after he had been incarcerated.
"He walked in and he had a big smile on his face, and I had no smile on my face because I'm facing the man I had done this to," White said in the video.
Williams didn't mince words, White's family said. But he also told White to pick a date and from that point on, let go of what had happened and move on.
"There's no way to explain it. It's an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness, of gratefulness, of strength to see him, to see how he's acted in this situation," White said.
Williams said he was thankful for the trials and tragedies in his life, "not because they're easy or they're desired, but because they help us love."
Williams recently released a book, "For Giving Hearts," in which he talks about the accident and how he was able to forgive and heal through his faith.
Letting go of anger
The dictionary defines "forgive" as "to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong), and to "stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake."
But that doesn't mean there isn't a place for anger, Derezotes said.
"Anger is a motivator," he said. "I think anger is there for a reason. Maybe being angry motivates me to protect myself and the people I care about."
Anger may prompt someone, like an abused spouse, to take action. But holding on to that anger longer than necessary may be "toxic," he said.
Forgiveness is "like letting go of the poison," Derezotes said. "If I stay angry my whole life, you're still victimizing me everyday."
But letting go of the anger and forgiving someone is "a process, not a single event," he said.
Each person will let go of their anger and forgive at their own rate, Derezotes said. "Your forgiveness process will look different than mine."
In most cases, people who offer forgiveness do it based on various religious traditions, philosophies or temperaments.
"I think some people say, 'You're in somebody else's hands now, whether it's the court or some greater being,'" Skordas said.
Some victims look to scriptures or religious leaders when searching for the strength to forgive a perpetrator.
"Forbearing one another and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye." — Colossians 3:13
"And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. ... For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." — Matthew 6:12-15
"Forgiveness ... allows the love of God to purge your heart and mind of the poison of hate." — LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, 1980.
But for those who don't offer forgiveness to the person who caused harm to them, Cassell said in the eyes of the court, that's OK, too. There is no right or wrong way for a victim to react, he stressed.
"No one should suggest what kind of reaction (a victim) should have," he said. "There's no right or wrong approach on any of this."
"There are a lot of crime victims who are angry forever," Skordas added.
Forgiveness has played a role in many court hearings in Utah, by both those who offer it and those who don't.
In 2010, Jacob Daniel Ethridge, 33, was sentenced to two consecutive terms of 20 years to life for the shooting deaths of two Ogden prostitutes.
"I hope you never have a good day the rest of your life," the mother of one of the women wrote in a letter. "My God says I should forgive you, but I cannot."
In 2009, career criminal Davey Joe Williams faced new charges after already serving prison time for his role in a double shooting that left one man dead and a teen critically injured. A relative of one of the victims of the earlier crimes said she planned to testify against Williams.
"We've tried to forgive, but we haven't forgotten," she said.
In 2008, John Dean Bevan was convicted in Tooele County of stabbing his fiance 17 times, killing her while she lay in bed.
"I know as a Christian, I have to forgive you, but I can't right now," the victim's mother said during sentencing. "I can't."
In 2007, Nathan Ellis offered forgiveness to the man who gunned down his wife, Teresa Ellis, and killed four others during the massacre at Trolley Square.
"I forgive the guy who shot and killed those people," he said. "It was a tragedy. We don't know what he was thinking, what his fears were, what his childhood was like. But we can all forgive, just as she would have forgiven."
In 2005, David Luis Burns was sentenced for shooting an Orem police officer in the back. The officer survived and was able to go back to work.
"I forgive David; I don't hold any bitterness toward him," Mirian Murphy, wife of Lt. Phil Murphy, told the court. "Of course, the circumstances are that my husband is alive right now. I don't know how I would have felt had things turned out differently."19 comments on this story
Other than religious philosophies, another reason some offer forgiveness is because it can give them a sense of empowerment over their attacker.
"Think of that act. Who is able to grant that to someone? Not the judge or the board of pardons. There's only one person that can forgive and that's the victim," Skordas said.
"That's a tremendous thing you have over them. I can see a perpetrator being hurt by those words just as much as 'I'll never forgive you and make you suffer as long as possible.'"