In the early hours of March 12, 2011, Ashlee Birk of Meridian, Idaho, walked into her closet and pleaded with God for what she calls a "do over." She needed a heavenly explanation for all that had just shattered her forever family.
Birk fell to her knees and pled for peace, her face soaked in the rare kind of tears few of us ever have to experience. Despite the ice-cold shock of the night, the cries of her baby and the dueling, fierce floods of anger and grief, she felt a peace wash over her.
In that quiet closet, she was greeted by the loving presence of the still, small voice, and the feelings and impressions were both undeniable and eternal.
“Be still.” She almost heard the words and knew heaven was near. She did not doubt then or now that angels had been guarding her home and her family.
Why would she need such peace? Because moments earlier, Ashlee Birk learned from detectives in her living room that she’d just become a 28-year-old widow.
She understood it would be hard, but felt spiritual confidence she would have the strength to keep moving forward. Somehow, she would find faith for a promised brighter day, as long as she kept protecting her sweet children and having faith in God.
Certainly, her faith would be tested in ways she never imagined. Earlier that evening, her husband, Emmett Corrigan, had been shot in a Walgreen’s parking lot in Meridian.
Birk knew, despite the moment, she was not alone, and the feelings provided such comfort. She'd been watched over and knew that her Creator was pleased with her. Suddenly, Birk was struck with the sense that it was time to decide if her testimony has been in her perfect life and her husband, or if her testimony had been in her Heavenly Father.
The detectives' words had stung. Her husband had been shot and killed? By whom? Not by some strung-out stranger, not in some robbery or random act of drive-by violence, but by an angry man. A jury eventually found Robert Hall guilty of second-degree murder in connection with Corrigan's death.
“Ashlee, be still. Breathe," she told herself, and she felt the overwhelming assurance she'd done all that she could. She'd done her best and heaven was proud of her. Despite what she'd been led to believe, she'd been a good wife and mother.
A mother? Yes, the newly initiated widow had five children, the youngest of which was 6 weeks old, waiting on her to explain, to recover, to raise and to help heal.
“You are still you,” she reminded herself, and this tragedy could not define who she would become. She was still the Ashlee she'd always been, and her only hope was to believe in herself. She could never doubt who she was simply because of the deep pain and anger.
Why was that man, Robert Hall, especially angry? Because he knew what Birk didn’t. He’d learned that his wife, Kandi Hall, had been having an affair with Corrigan, Ashlee Birk’s husband. The two men’s rage-fueled confrontation that night in a suburban drugstore parking lot ended not with confessions and apologies but with gunshots and screams.
Still on her knees in a dark closet, Birk knew how hard it would be, but that the Lord needed her to find forgiveness and peace.
Peace? Moments earlier she’d heard from strangers, in a burst, barely a breath between each of the revelations, that her husband was dead.
Not just dead — killed.
Not just killed — shot by a lover’s spouse.
Not just a lover, but a woman Birk knew, a woman who’d been an employee of her husband’s law firm.
In words she's read a thousand times, Ashlee Birk told herself it was time to find the beauty all around her. She needed to make the world a better place for her children, the greatest blessing in her life. Because of her great faith and a life well-lived, she knew that the Lord would carry her when the days and months ahead became unbearable. But she also knew that in order to survive and do his work, she'd need to stand.
Ashlee Birk, ever obedient to the laws of God and Earth, did just that.
And she’s been standing ever since.
Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Birk at length. I was struck not just by the things she’s learned through this horrific ordeal but also by how willing she is to share the lessons with the world.
“Where does that willingness come from?” I wondered.
After years of struggle, after remarrying to a wonderful man and working hard to blend their families, her painful memories and the difficult observations remained within her own soul and the hearts of only her closest family and friends.
Then, without warning, the still, small voice amended the guidance she received on a cold March night in 2011. During a trip to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' temple in Boise, with her heart hungry for angelic counsel, troubled over how much to share about her highly personal journey, she heard divine direction that both surprised and comforted her.
“Ashlee, be a voice to some of my children who aren’t listening.”
She replayed the phrase over and over in her mind. Then, the very next day, during a priesthood blessing from her husband, Shawn, she heard the phrase again. Not from a silent voice, but aloud from her husband’s own mouth.
On Jan. 6, Birk, a very talented wordsmith, began sharing her story — both the heartache and the joys — and the world has come to listen. In just two months, more than a million people have been touched by her courageous desire to stand and be the voice God wants her to be.
When I asked Birk what she’s learned from the pain of betrayal and loss, her response made me want to stand, too. “I’ve discovered that just like the Savior’s pain brings hope, my own pain can bring hope, too.”
After taking time to update me on the legal side of her story — Robert Hall was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years — Birk was quick to go on record with her views on forgiveness. “Listen,” she said, “I’ve discovered that forgiveness is not a checkbox. I’d been working for three years with checkboxes. But true forgiveness isn’t a step; it’s a process.”
We spoke in detail about how the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches the need to forgive and how some other high-profile Christians have discussed their decision to quickly move on — almost instantly — from being wronged. “For me, it’s just not been like that. It’s not a perfect process.”
She shared with me her anger, denial and a deep desire for an apology from the three people who hurt her beyond description. “But those apologies will never come,” she said.
Birk's honesty is refreshing.
On her road to forgiveness, she told me she’s written many letters to Kandi Hall, letters she’s never sent, and sought diligently to find empathy for her husband’s killer. “He must have been hurting, too,” she offered. “Every one of us can have our lives shattered. But with the Lord near us, we’ll be all right. Without him we’ll break, but with him we’ll break through.”
With those perspectives, she might be further down the road than she realizes.
“If you had to sum up your experiences,” I asked, “If you could wrap it all into one message for people who have come to sympathize with your trials, what would it be?”
“No one can avoid the dark days,” she said confidently. “Just when you think you’ve been hit with all the hard things, when you think you’re finally done, you’re not. Until we’re with him again, living in his presence, life will test and refine us again and again.”
And when life does hit us, we decided, we’d better be standing.
Because that’s right where God wants us.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars" and his latest, "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, applevalleybarndance.com or jasonfwright.com