The power of forgiveness after a tragedy
On Aug. 31, 2009, Patty Bonack got the news no parent ever wants to hear. Her youngest daughter, Jenny, had been killed in a car accident by a drunk driver.
“When you get news like that you deny it,” said Patty. “You just don’t want to believe it.”
As Jenny was coming home from work at her job at a McDonald’s in Madison, Jesse Ruegsegger T-boned her car at an intersection on the east side. His blood alcohol level was .24.
“Even when I learned she was killed by a drunk driver I had a powerful feeling of forgiveness come over me,” Patty said. “I attribute that to the Holy Spirit working in my heart. I don’t think I could have felt that way on my own.”
Patty’s strong faith and the journey she has taken to embrace the man who killed her daughter has resulted in a book, “The Man Who Killed My Daughter” that was just recently released.
“I wrote a children’s book a long time ago that I never published,” she said. “But this time I felt a strong pull to write this book. I wanted to write about the power of forgiveness and how it has affected my life.”
For most parents, losing a child in such a senseless manner would set up a lifetime of anger and resentment, but that never occurred to Patty, although there were times when she was nervous and afraid. One of those times was when she attended Jesse’s sentencing hearing. It would be the first time she would lay eyes on the young man who killed her daughter.
“I was very nervous about seeing Jesse for the first time,” she said. “As I was giving my victim statement I couldn’t make eye contact with him. For me this day was as hard as the day Jenny died.”
Jesse received an eight year prison sentence with nine years probation and Patty was glad for that.
“Even though I had forgiven him, I still wanted him to pay for what he did,” she said. “I wanted him to know how much harm he had done to our family.”
But the actions of Jesse, even in this horrendous situation, impressed Patty. The then 29 year old was a National Guard member, a hard worker and came from a loving and tight knit family. His mother, Sandy and his father, were in the courtroom at his sentencing and Patty felt the family’s pain. The young man took full responsibility for his actions, expressing his grief and asking for forgiveness from Jenny’s family.
After the hearing was over Patty’s pastor, who had driven her to Madison for the court hearing, and her sister, started talking to Sandy outside the courtroom, ending up exchanging email addresses and phone numbers.
Despite the fact that Patty continued to grieve for her daughter, she also had a strong desire to reach out to Jesse’s family. This was a scary proposition for her.
“It was scary thinking about doing this but I wanted to know more about Jesse and I felt this need to reach out to his mother,” said Patty. “I knew she was in a lot of pain too.”
Patty got the contact information from her pastor and called Sandy. They agreed to meet only two months after the sentencing.
“We ended up talking for over six hours,” said Patty. “She wanted to know about Jenny and I wanted to know more about Jesse. It was hard for both of us but we became friends.”
Then Patty decided she wanted to contact Jesse. She asked permission to write to him in prison and through a victim restorative justice program she was granted permission. At first their letters were short and awkward but as time went on they became more open with each other.
“Through these letters I really got to know Jesse,” said Patty. “I came to know him as a young man who really was a good person but who had made a terrible mistake.”
On the first anniversary of Jenny’s death Patty and her husband, and Sandy, Amy, Jesse’s girlfriend and his dad met and traveled to the site of the accident. They prayed and then went to the Ruegsegger’s home where Patty learned even more about Jesse.
“After a loved one dies it’s really hard to get through that first year,” said Patty. “But it was important for me to see where the accident happened and to connect with Sandy on the anniversary day of the accident.”
It wasn’t long after this that Patty decided to visit Jesse in prison. It took several months but she was granted permission.
“That first visit was hard for both of us,” she said. “But after writing to him I knew I wanted to meet him in person.”
One of the topics the two talked about was the prevalence of drinking especially for military soldiers. Jesse had firsthand knowledge of that himself.
Shortly after that meeting both families were contacted by a production company that had been commissioned by the military to film an educational film about drinking among military personnel. It would be a short film shown to military men and women after they had joined. Jesse would also be featured.
“I figured something good was coming from Jenny’s death,” said Patty. “Maybe someone watching this film would think twice about drinking and driving and save someone else the pain we were going through.”
After its release last April, Patty and her family were invited to the premiere and were very impressed with the production.
“I think it will make a big impact on soldiers,” Patty said.
Today the families have formed a loving bond and Patty continues to write letters to Jesse and goes to visit him when time allows. She recently sent him a copy of her book and the two are making tentative plans to go on a speaking tour when he is released.
“We are talking about going together and talking to groups about our story,” said Patty. “I think it will make a big impact on people, when they can see the story from both sides. But most of all I feel it will be a tribute to Jenny and a way to make her life, and death, have even more meaning.”