Brandt Jean is 18, and is a victim of a violent crime. His brother, Botham Jean, was murdered. Their mother, Allison Jean and father, Bertram Jean, are also victims of that same violent crime. And his sister, Allisa Findley. Their family will forever be one person short, because of a murder.
Losing someone you love is hard, grief is painful and takes on every emotional shape you can imagine. The movies and TV often get this wrong; we see pictures of people sobbing uncontrollably, and for people who haven’t experienced that grief, it can look like the only form it comes in, but when you grieve, your emotions can take on so many forms. Because the loss of that person takes away some sense of your equilibrium, of your bearings, in a lot of people. You try to find how to do everything without that person, and the closer you were, the more they meant to you, the worse it can be. That’s grief.
If the person dies at another person’s hands, there’s more layers. If a person kills themself, there’s sometimes anger, a taboo in our culture, at the person who committed suicide, because we get angry when someone hurts someone we love, even if that person is their own self. If a person is murdered, there’s more. And we want justice. And as people grieve to find equilibrium, they’re unbalanced by the injustice of it all. When our criminal justice system gets it wrong, and the wrong person is blamed for a crime, it can unbalance the survivors, who sometimes can only find closure when the person who hurt their loved one is punished. When our criminal justice system at least names the right person, it means the closure for the victims can be real. Our criminal justice system gets so many things wrong, and it’s an unfair system. That discussion matters. But that discussion isn’t always what survivors need. Whatever a survivor needs to do, so long as they aren’t working to hurt someone, including the self, that matters. And there really isn’t a wrong choice, as long as you aren’t working to hurt someone.
At the sentencing hearing, Brandt Jean said this to former Police Officer Amber Guyer, the woman who murdered his brother,
“ … I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you… I love you just like anyone else and I’m not going to hope you rot and die… I personally want the best for you. I wasn’t going to say this in front of my family, I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want for you. Give your life to Christ. I think giving your life to Christ is the best thing Botham would want for you.”
Brandt Jean is crystal clear, here. He believes that his brother would want him to forgive his murderer. I don’t know why he believes this, other than the reason he gave. Brandt Jean is a survivor, and this is how he’ll survive this violent crime, through his spiritual beliefs, the love of his brother that remains, and this belief in what he thinks his brother would want. I refuse to judge his choice, other than to accept it. His mother, father and sister may not make the same choice. I won’t judge them, either, and just accept it.
The choices of survivors on their path to survival isn’t something I’ll judge. If I know you, the only judgement is going to come from me if you choose to hurt someone, especially yourself. I never fantasize about what life would be like in these situations. Having been in a few, I’d rather take it as it comes.
For the public, for those of us who only know the story of Botham Jean’s murder, we’re grieving, too. We don’t know Botham Jean, we aren’t close to him in a way his family was. But now that we know him even a little, a lot of people are grieving, too. And a lot of people are angry, because our criminal justice system is unfair, and while it was shocking that a spark of fairness meant at least this murderer will go to jail, we see the unfairness of a judge hugging the murderer, we see the unfairness of a ten year sentence for a police officer, we see the unfairness of an investigation from the point of view of Allison Jean that to her helped the murderer more than it saw the victim, we see the unfairness of the idea that castle doctrine was invoked by an intoxicated police officer who shot Botham Jean in his own home, who knew enough of her training to give him a killing wound but who choose not to use her first aid training and possibly save the life she just took, we know it’s unfair, and we’re angry, and sad, and all kinds of things, and that’s okay. It’s normal. All of it.
But the one thing I hope the rest of us don’t do, the one thing I hope we all remember, is that only wrong choice, the only bad reaction, is the one where we choose to hurt someone else. I hope people listen to his mother, Allison Jean, unvarnished, and take seriously her grievances against the criminal justice system there.
And I hope that Brandt Jean, the victim of a violent crime, is left alone by the public, and spared our grief and frustration. He and his family are already suffering. I hope his whole family is supported.
They don’t need the rest of us to add to their suffering.
And their family doesn’t need us to turn their suffering into our own teachable moment, into our own moment of redemption. Like all people suffering, they need our love, and compassion, and if there is a lesson here, it’s in the form of a question, “What grace can I give to a stranger I see suffering?” Forgiveness is not absolution. Grace is often for the person suffering, the victim, but it’s not for us. Our place, in our grief, is compassion, and if you find you can’t give it in unlimited amounts, then spare as much as you can for the victims until you can. I hope I can someday.
I won’t share the picture of Brandt Jean hugging his brother’s murderer, because, I don’t want to add to the narrative that’s unfolding, to be one of the people judging his decisions.
I do want to paint a picture of what grief and suffering can feel like, though, for anyone who doesn’t understand but wants a perspective to try.
And for all my friends out there, the survivors, I know times like this can be hard, because of all the memories and feelings, resolved and unresolved, these moments can bring. I love you, and I hope you’re okay.