There’s no denying just how hard it is to forgive those who have inflicted great suffering upon us. One pastor, however, demonstrated grace as he mustered up the compassion within himself to forgive the firefighter paramedic who was responsible for his wife and unborn child’s death in a tragic accident.
The fatal crash that changed the life of pastor Erik Fitzgerald and firefighter paramedic Matthew Swatzell occurred early in the morning of Oct. 2, 2006.
A tired Swatzell, then 20, was driving home after working a 24-hour shift as a firefighter and EMS in Dacula, Georgia.
Having just 30 minutes of sleep, Swatzell grew dozy and nodded off at the wheel.
Within the few seconds that he had fallen asleep, his car crashed into another car, carrying Fitzgerald’s pregnant wife, June Fitzgerald, 30, and their then-19-month-old daughter, Faith.
Though Faith survived the crash, unfortunately, June and her unborn baby did not.
As one could imagine, both Fitzgerald and Swatzell were shattered upon learning the death of both the mother and child.
“Not only did I lose my wife and my best friend, but also a son,” Erik recalled with tears in his eyes, according to The Gospel Herald.
“I’m supposed to be a helper. The EMT and the paramedic and fireman that helps in these tragic situations, and here I am, caused this,” Swatzell told TODAY.
Swatzell could forever be trapped in guilt and shame due to his grave and unintentional mistake, while Fitzgerald could be wallowing in anger, bitterness, and resentment all his life after the tragic accident.
But being a follower of Christ, the then-widower Fitzgerald compassionately chose to forgive Swatzell and move on past the agony.
“I remembered, somebody said this in a sermon—in moments where tragedy happens or even hurt, there’s opportunities to demonstrate grace or the exact [sic] vengeance,” Fitzgerald said. “Here was an opportunity where I could do that. And I chose to demonstrate grace.”
Fitzgerald then requested the prosecutors to impose a lighter sentence against Swatzell, whom he’d never had any contact with throughout the court case.
“I didn’t see why this accident and tragedy needed to ruin any more lives,” he explained.
The day before the two-year-anniversary of June’s death, Swatzell, who was sentenced to community service and a fine, went to a grocery store to buy a condolence card for Fitzgerald.
After buying the card, in the parking lot of the store, Swatzell got emotional as he saw Fitzgerald walking toward his truck.
“He was just bawling,” Fitzgerald said. “So I just walked up and I just hugged him. What do you say? Sometimes things are best said with no words.”
The hug seemingly lifted Swatzell’s heavy burden of guilt off his shoulder.
“That was the biggest relief I’d ever felt. He just said from the start that he forgived [sic] me,” Swatzell said.
“Just hearing him say those words, it just impacted my life completely,” he added.
That day, Swatzell and Fitzgerald chatted for two hours.
Bonded by an unexplainable connection, the two men have since forged a unique friendship that continues to today.
“He’s like a big brother to me,” Swatzell said, alluding to Fitzgerald. “As weird as it may sound and crazy, but we do. It’s unique.”
Swatzell, now married with children, got to know Fitzgerald’s daughter, Faith, better.
“I just don’t want people to think that Matthew’s a bad person because he isn’t,” said Faith, now 12. “He just made a mistake.”
Swatzell particularly loves seeing Faith play with his kids.
“Just seeing Faith, holding my kids—it puts a smile on my face,” he said. “It reminds me that there’s grace and there’s hope and there’s good.”
Coincidentally, Fitzgerald, who has remarried, welcomed the arrival of a baby in his new wife on the same due date as his unborn child.
The coincidence made Fitzgerald and Swatzell feel certain their friendship was a sign from heaven.
“I mean, June’s in heaven. And one day, we’ll get to all kind of hang out,” Fitzgerald said.
Though Swatzell still struggles with guilt, he has been able to move forward thanks to Fitzgerald’s forgiveness and friendship.
“I can honestly say that without this friendship I don’t know where I’d be,” said Swatzell.
“It’s still a struggle and I have demons and things I’ll have to deal with forever,” he added. “But I can’t find the words to express what Fitzgerald and his support have done for me.”
And Fitzgerald’s decision to forgive brought peace not only to Swatzell but also to himself.
“This has been just as healing for me too,” said Fitzgerald. “I’ve taught on forgiveness and I know that forgiveness is not so much for the other person but for yourself.”
“It saved my life.”
As the saying from the Buddha goes, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.”
Instead of allowing bitterness and anger to ruin our well-being, we could instead choose to forgive others and let go of the past.
And by doing just that, the power of forgiveness will set us free, like renowned author Lewis B. Smedes once said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
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