Why I Can't Forgive The Man Who Murdered My 20-Year-Old Cousin In Cold Blood

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why is forgiveness so hard

"Something happened to Kenneth," I told my father.

I remember it clearly.

It was a Wednesday, around 8:45 AM, that I woke up, 15 minutes before my alarm went off. For some odd reason, I couldn't fall back asleep. I lay there trying to get an extra 15 minutes of sleep before finally succumbing and grabbing my cell phone so I could lazily scroll through Facebook.

A few scrolls later, one of my cousin’s posts caught my eye. She and her family lived in the Philippines. Roughly translated, the post said, "I want to take revenge. How dare he kill my brother?!”

I re-read the post, sure that I hadn't correctly comprehended what she was saying. Surely, she didn’t mean her brother (my cousin) had been literally killed, right?

I kept scrolling.

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The next post I saw from the same cousin made my blood go cold. I felt like I couldn't breathe. It was a photo, dark and unclear, but it was clearly of the body of a familiar-looking young man — my cousin — covered with a white sheet, in a morgue.

My body filled with adrenaline and suddenly, I was wide awake and acutely aware of the general quietness of my home. I wondered if my parents knew and if so, why they hadn't told me.

I walked downstairs and realized my dad wasn’t home; he was out on a jog. My mom was home, but she was in the shower getting ready for a planned day out with some friends from out of town.

For what felt like an absurdly long time, I sat in the kitchen sipping my cup of coffee, clutching my phone like a lifeline, wondering if I was in some bizarre nightmare. I watched people being murdered in the news. It happened to other people, not to our family.

When my dad arrived home from his jog, he asked if I had breakfast. I told him I wasn’t hungry. He headed for the master bedroom. I followed him. My mom was putting on the last touches of her makeup.

She looked at me and asked why I was up so early. I shook my head and showed them my cousin’s Facebook profile on my phone.

"Something happened to Kenneth," was all I said.

"What?" came from my mom.

"Don’t joke like that," said my dad.

After a long-distance call to the Philippines, we had our answer.

My cousin Kenneth was at home when he found their drunk neighbor yelling at his sister's 3-year-old son and slapping his sister's 2-year-old for crying. In a bout of anger and defensiveness for his nephews, he punched the neighbor and warned him never to go near his sister's kids again.

His dad, my uncle, was also in the house and took the kids outside to calm down. He wasn't aware that their neighbor had slipped in and followed Kenneth to his bedroom where he stabbed him in the back before running out of the house.

My cousin Mae told us in tears that he never made it to the hospital. The drunk neighbor had been aiming for my uncle but because he had left the house with the kids, he went for the only one who was left. Kenneth was only 20 years old.

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I cried so much in the next couple of hours. I was filled with a myriad of emotion: devastation, confusion, and anger took precedence. I couldn't comprehend why it happened. Why him? Why did that sorry excuse for a human being choose to murder my cousin?

Kenneth was a dancer, a member of a dance group that had won many competitions. He only had one year left in college before he graduated with a Bachelor's in Financial Management. He had been dating the same girl for 3 years and was about to celebrate their anniversary.

He had a bright future ahead of him. And he was taken from us in such a brutal way. 

For the next few days, my family in America did our best to send our support to our family in the Philippines. We wanted to fly there but we didn't have the means to do so; all we could offer was some money to help with funeral arrangements.

For the next few days, my Facebook feed was filled with posts about him from his friends, his sister,  his brother, his girlfriend, his other cousins. At some point, I had to log out of Facebook because seeing them became too much. 

I had planned on attending a music festival that weekend and felt guilty that I still wanted to go. My parents said I should so I could get my mind off things, so I did — and it worked.

For the few hours at the festival, I was happy for the first time in days. But when I arrived home, seeing my dad devoid of his usual corny jokes and my mom talking softly, the heavy feeling of bereavement came back.

After some months, we began to healing and move on. I remembered asking a friend of mine, "Is it possible to move on from something like this? Why is forgiveness so hard?"

He said it would take some time, but eventually we would. His friend committed suicide; he knew what it felt like to lose someone in such a brutal manner, even if the circumstances were different.

Eventually, we returned to our regular routines. My dad resumed his corny jokes; My mom started nagging me again. Life went on.

But a week ago, it felt like déjà vu. I woke up early, checked Facebook, and saw my cousin Mae's Facebook post: "Justice is served."

With just those 3 words, all those awful feelings suddenly came rushing back — the grief, the pain, the anger.

After 2 months and 2 weeks, they finally caught Kenneth's murderer. I read that he had tried to escape and was shot by police in the leg.

My first thought was, "Good." My next thought was, "Wait, what?"

I've never considered myself a vindictive person and always tried to see the positive in others. And yet, I was happy that my cousin's murderer had been shot.

Isn't the first step to moving on forgiveness? In the months following his death, I read a lot of articles about forgiveness and moving on, which said that forgiveness sets you free; resentment holds you back. Forgiveness relieves you of the thorn in your heart so you can finally live life in happiness.

As a practicing Catholic, that was what we were always taught: Forgiveness and turning the other cheek. In fact, those last 2 months, I had prayed harder than I ever had in my entire life; each prayer was a plea for justice and we had finally gotten it.

Maybe I should have also prayed for the ability to forgive. Because try as I might, I couldn't do it. I became angry and spiteful. Why did he get to live and my cousin didn't? How could I forgive someone who had taken the life of my loved one? How could I forgive a person who not only hurt my cousin's children but had also killed someone for trying to defend them?

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It wasn't an accident. It wasn't foul play. He deliberately chose to hit a child and stab a young man. And then he ran away. Even worse, he never asked for forgiveness, either.

If I, as his cousin, was having a hard time forgiving and moving on, what about his family? His girlfriend? Are they expected to forgive someone who seemed to feel and show no remorse for taking a life? Who tried to escape justice? Why is forgiveness so hard under these circumstances?

I've been pondering this question since the day I got the news. I'm still pondering it. 

I thought I had moved on but maybe it's not that simple. Maybe one day thinking about Kenneth won't give me that painful ache in my chest anymore.

But for now, I'll never forget that little boy who was shy at first, but upbeat when you got to know him, a kid who grew into an outstanding young man with huge goals and so much love in his heart. I will remember him every time I open Facebook; he used to like all my posts, no matter what I shared, and messaged me regularly telling me that he was doing well in school.

Every time I watch dance cover videos, I will remember him because he was a talented and passionate dancer. When I go to church, I will remember him because he used to spend his Sundays as an altar server. And when I see my cousin Mae posting photos of her kids, I will remember him because he loved those kids so much that he died for them.

As for that sorry excuse of a human being, he got a life sentence and will hopefully never take another life.

Life is so precious. You never think that you're going to lose someone important to you... until it happens.

But one thing I'm sure of is that my cousin Mae will be telling her sons about their Uncle Kenneth, who defended them, who was their hero. My cousin Dan, who looked up to his older brother, made a promise to make him proud and I have no doubt that he will. 

And as for me, I'll keep the very few but precious memories I had with Kenneth close to my heart and I won't ever tire of telling his story, no matter how tragic.

Maybe one day I'll get the hang of this forgiveness thing. Maybe I never will. But at the moment, I still can't forgive. And I have the right to feel that way.


Caithlin Pena is an Editorial Fellow at YourTango. Her interests revolve around books, music, and collecting Pop Vinyl Figurines.