For Tammy Horvath, forgiving her son’s killer was easier than forgiving herself.
Tammy tells her story in a recently released memoir, Gone In An Instant: Losing My Son, Loving His Killer, a number-one bestseller in Amazon’s death, grief, and spirituality category. The book took years to write—a painful undertaking that forced her to examine her past and present before she could look to a future marked by faith, forgiveness, love, and renewed hope.
“It took writing about it to come to closure,” she says. “What I learned is that forgiving a stranger is easier than forgiving my family, including myself.”
Forgiving the Killer
Tammy and I crossed paths at a writer’s conference more than a year ago. In that class, one of our instructors urged us to “shock Broca.” If Tammy’s story didn’t shock Broca nothing would.
Having lost my own son, her story interested me. We stayed in touch, and after a few months, Tammy reached out asking if I’d read her book. The manuscript detailed her growing up with an alcoholic father and an overly strict mother. It chronicled her rebellion and marriage to her first husband, Tony, and the birth of their only child, Luke.
Central to her memoir, of course, was Luke’s death at age 19 and the road she traveled forgiving her son’s killer, Tyrone. Just 22-years-old at the time, Tyrone shot Luke point-blank in the head with a semi-automatic gun during a drug deal and robbery.
Powerful stuff, I thought as I read how she stood before her son’s murderer during the sentencing phase of his trial and felt nothing but compassion for this young man, a kid himself.
Not a single member of Tyrone’s family had shown up to support him, and an overwhelming love—a love only God could give—filled her. When the time came to give her victim impact statement, she knew exactly what to say: “Tyrone, because I am a follower of Jesus, I am required to forgive you. And I have forgiven you from the moment you took my son’s life….”
But something didn’t quite ring true for me and apparently others.
If forgiving Tyrone had healed her broken heart and brought her to closure, why then did anxiety and stress consume her? Why did she want to die? Why had she sidelined her second husband, Mike, who only wanted to help her work through her grief?
A Story that Began Decades Earlier
Unbeknownst to her, Luke’s tragic death and her inconsolable grief had started long before her son’s birth.
Tammy grew up in western Pennsylvania in a home dramatically different from those of her friends. When visiting her girlfriends, Tammy was struck by the fathers’ affection for their daughters and their words of love. Her dad never once said he loved Tammy.
Her deeply religious mother, meanwhile, demanded perfection from her. Even the fire-and-brimstone church her mother attended with Tammy and her sister spoke only of God’s condemnation, not His love.
Tammy rebelled, ran away once, lied, and snuck around with older men, including Tony, a handsome and charming man who reminded Tammy of her father.
Tony also battled his demons. In addition to being an alcoholic, he used, and sold drugs. He had an affair with a teenage girl after they married, and bounced from one business to the next, forcing Tammy to provide the lion’s share of the family’s income. She stayed with him despite the issues.
When he died in a fiery crash, Tammy faced raising Luke alone. She was only 28 years old.
By her own admission, Tammy found motherhood challenging. Though she loved her son, she’d often criticize him. She punished him for behaviors she ignored in her stepchildren—a pattern even Mike noticed after marrying her. She expected perfection from Luke.
As he grew older, the sweet and caring little boy changed. He would curse and physically attack her, scaring her to the point of locking her bedroom door at night.
Mental-health professionals failed to uncover his root issues and even told Tammy not to bring him back for subsequent counseling. He didn’t cooperate, sometimes verbally abusing even them.
Believing her harsh words had contributed to Luke’s behavioral problems, Tammy did a one-eighty. “I then spoiled the crap out of him. I did anything he asked, afraid he wouldn’t love me.”
Before his tragic murder, Luke still refused to get a job. He would only do small jobs for her and others when he needed money. Little did she know he had started using and selling drugs, just as his biological father before him.
More than six months ago, at the urging of an editor who also sensed something missing in Tammy’s story, she faced a hard-to-accept truth. Tammy returned to her manuscript and found the rewriting cathartic. No wonder God had put it on her heart to write her story.
“I was codependent most of my life with both Tony and Luke,” Tammy wrote in one of the final chapters. “I allowed their actions to affect the way I felt. Their happiness became the key to my joy. As a result, I became obsessed with controlling their actions and feared they would not love me if I didn’t do things for them.”
The childhood hurts for which she’d already forgiven her parents had shaped her into the mom she became—the codependent who “wouldn’t let her child think for himself and expected him to be perfect like she strived to be.”
Tammy’s New Awareness
Forgiving people isn’t easy, Tammy says, especially when it involves yourself. “What I learned is that I had to forgive myself for my mistakes. I made Luke an idol and put him before God. I also had to forgive Luke for the hurt he put me through. I didn’t even realize I needed to do so. It took writing it out for me to see this.”
Tammy has found peace, she says, and is hopeful she can speak to others of her experiences. If her painfully honest story of loss, forgiveness, love, and renewal helps just one person, she says she’ll consider herself a success.
Has her story helped you or given you an insight you’ve not considered? If so, share! Someone might be touched by your experience.