Could You Forgive the Drunk Driver Who Killed Your Daughter? This Mom Did Just That!

Meagan Napier and her best friend, Lisa Jo Dickson, were driving to Meagan’s home after an outing in Pensacola, FL on May 11, 2002.  They never reached their destination.

Around 2:30 that morning (the day before Mother’s Day), a drunk driver hit the car Dickson was driving and rammed it into a tree. Both of the 20-year-old women were killed instantly.  The 24-year-old drunk driver who caused the crash, Eric Smallridge, was eventually found guilty of DUI manslaughter (Driving Under the Influence of drugs or alcohol) and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Unlike many too-often-repeated drunk driving crashes that result in deaths, the sentencing in this case was not the end of the story. In fact, it was just the beginning of an amazing story of commitment, forgiveness and lives saved.              Please read on.

Shortly after Smallridge was sentenced, Meagan Napier’s heart-broken mother, Renee, made a commitment that something positive would result from the deaths of her daughter and her daughter’s friend Lisa.

Renee Napier has devoted her life to speaking out about the dangers of drunken driving since her daughter Meagan and Meagan’s best friend Lisa Dickson were both killed by a drunken driver who crashed into their car.

So Renee began traveling to schools in her community to warn students about the dangers of drunk driving. As word of her compelling DUI presentations spread, she began receiving speaking requests from groups outside Pensacola and soon her part-time local commitment turned into a full-time nation-wide educational mission to prevent more unnecessary death’s like Meagan’s.

Still, as speaking engagements consumed more and more of her time, Renee felt there was something missing. She decided to visit the imprisoned man who was responsible for her daughter’s death. That initial meeting with Eric turned into a second meeting, and a third, and many more after that. What Renee discovered during those visits was that Eric was not the monster she had been imagining but was just like so many other hurt people who try to drown their anger and resentment in alcohol, in drugs, or whatever make-it-feel-good vice is available to them.

While serving his sentence for DUI manslaughter, Eric Smallridge (clad in his prison garb, handcuffed and shackled) was occasionally allowed to join Renee Napier to speak at impaired- driving presentations.

At the same time, Renee began learning about the healing power of forgiveness and eventually she forgave Eric–not because she felt sorry for him, but because she needed to release the pent-up anger and emotions in her own heart and mind that were taking their toll on her health and well-being.

“I could be angry, hateful and bitter,” Renee says. “But I didn’t want to live my life that way. There was no way I could move on and live a happy life without forgiving Eric.”

Renee said that prior to finding the courage to forgive Eric, she felt like she was the one in prison and that forgiveness “freed me from the darkest place I have ever been.” 

Not only did Renee forgive Eric, she even approached the judge who had sentenced him to prison. Through a series of meetings and petitions (and with the strong support of the Dickson family), she somehow convinced the judge to cut Eric’s sentence in half–from 22-years to just 11 years–and to allow Eric to join her (bound by shackles and handcuffs) on many of her DUI presentations  in order to also share his powerful testimony.

After forgiving the drunk driver who caused the death of her daughter, Renee Napier has spread her forgiveness message to more than 100,000 people.

Even though Renee has forgiven him, Eric says he doesn’t know if he will ever be able to forgive himself. He says he is certain, however, that he will not drink alcohol ever again. Still on probation, Eric works at a Goodwill store and as a personal trainer. His mother serves as his unofficial chauffeur because his driver’s license, of course, was revoked.

“I was so selfish because I never considered what effect drinking and driving could have on someone other than me,” Eric tells audiences. “I made a bad decision, and now two young people are dead because of it.”

Though they admit that their relationship may confuse many, Renee and Eric agree that sharing their life-saving cause has helped them heal. They conclude each presentation with a compelling embrace. 

Renee, who has become an award-winning speaker, is also the Founder and President of The Meagan Napier Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization formed for two purposes: 1) to raise awareness of the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol; and, 2) to promote forgiveness and healing. It operates under the banner ofPromoting Forgiveness • Mending Hearts • Saving Lives.”

“We live in a world with a lot of pain and heartache,” Renee says. “I want to promote love and forgiveness and help break that cycle of hatred.”


 

Forgiveness Therapy Proposed as Antidote for Traumatic Childhood Experiences

Forgiveness Therapy and forgiveness interventions developed by Dr. Robert Enright are being embraced in a just-released study as promising tools for effectively dealing with what the study calls a “major public health crisis.” 

Researchers at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (Tulsa, OK) have teamed up with those at Stanford University (Stanford, CA) to study the life-long adverse impacts of Early Life Adversity (ELA). The study is titled Is There an Ace Up Our Sleeve? A Review of Interventions and Strategies for Addressing Behavioral and Neurobiological Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences in Youth.” It was published just five days ago, March 13, 2020, in the empirical journal Adversity and Resilience Science.

ELA is the term for the negative experiences children may face or witness while growing up (sometimes also called Adverse Childhood ExperiencesACEs). These traumatic experiences include:

  • emotional, physical, or sexual abuse;
  • emotional or physical neglect;
  • living in a household in which domestic violence occurs;
  • growing up in household dealing with substance abuse or mental health problems;
  • instability due to parental separation, divorce or incarceration;
  • witnessing violence in the home; or,
  • having a family member attempt suicide.

Any of those traumatic experiences can lead to what child development specialists call “toxic stress” if encountered by children without adequate adult support. Toxic stress can disrupt early brain development and compromise functioning of the nervous and immune systems. The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and other problems that can cause life-long complications.

In fact, psychologists say, adults with more adverse experiences in early childhood are also more likely to have health problems including alcoholism, depression, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases as well as impaired cognitive and social development. The report suggests that many adult diseases are, in fact, developmental disorders that begin early in life.

The new ELA publication describes and evaluates existing evidence-based interventions and their outcomes including Forgiveness Therapy. Three of Dr. Enright’s peer-reviewed empirical studies were examined and cited for achieving commendable outcomes compared to those of a control group:

  • Female incest survivors (Freedman & Enright, 1996). Results: “significantly greater decrease in levels of depression and anxiety.”

  • Women diagnosed with fibromyalgia who had experienced at least two ACEs in their childhood (Lee & Enright, 2014). Results: “increases in forgiveness toward their abuser, lower levels of state anger, and improvements in physical health related to their fibromyalgia symptoms.”

  • Female Pakistani adolescents with histories of abuse (Rahman, Iftikhar, Kim & Enright, 2018). Results: Similar findings to the fibromyalgia study “suggesting that Forgiveness Therapy may uphold in a cross-cultural context.”

Those three intervention experiments by Dr. Enright and his research partners are the only Forgiveness Therapy examples cited in the 24-page ELA study that “have shown forgiveness therapy to be effective” in both physically and emotionally healthy ways. The ELA study also postulates that those interventions are effective because in Dr. Enright’s approach “the hypothesized mechanism behind forgiveness therapy involves cognitive restructuring of the abuser and events.”

Based on the evidence gather through this new ELA study, Forgiveness Therapy is one of the promising interventions for children who are experiencing toxic stress without appropriate support from parents or other concerned caregivers. That, they conclude, can help return a child’s stress response system back to normal while reducing negative mental and physical health outcomes later in life.

“Therefore, we conclude that they (Forgiveness Therapy interventions) are well-suited for and hold promise to exert immediate preventive and sustained changes in outcomes for maltreated youth.” – ELA study conclusion, March 13, 2020.


Why is this subject important? Why does it matter?

According to the World Health Organization, as many as 39% of children worldwide are estimated to experience one or more forms of early life adversity, placing a high economic burden on health-care systems—and society in general—through medical costs and lost productivity.


The mission of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) is to “develop novel therapeutics, cures and preventions to improve the well-being of persons who suffer from or are at risk for neuropsychiatric illness.” Dr. Namik Kirlic, the LIBR Principal Investigator for the ELA study, is a clinical psychologist who has devoted his professional life to studying ELA interventions and how to optimize their positive outcomes. Other team members for the ELA study include Zsofia Cohen (Dr. Kirlic’s Research Assistant) and Dr. Manpreet Singh, a psychiatrist and medical doctor at Stanford Health Care.

MORE INFORMATION:

I started the process of forgiving my mother. As I went on this journey, I realized that she was treated very badly by my grandmother, who passed away before I was born.  Should I also forgive my grandmother, even though I never met her?

Yes, you can forgive your grandmother.  This is what the philosopher, Trudy Govier, calls secondary forgiveness.  Even though your grandmother was not directly unjust to you, she was indirectly unjust to you because of what she did to your mother.

You might want to read this essay from Psychology Today: Can You Forgive a Person Who Has Died? 

Starting forgiveness is not so bad, but continuing with it is rough.  I kind of want to move on to other things in my life.  So, how do I persevere to the end and complete forgiveness without giving up?

In the book, The Forgiving Life, I talk about the good will, the free will, and the strong will.  The good will allows you to see those who hurt you in all of their woundedness and to respond to them with kindness.  The free will allows you to say “yes” to the forgiveness process itself.  The strong will allows you to keep going even though it is difficult.

Try to be aware of the strong will.  Cultivate it in other areas even apart from forgiveness.  For example, stay with the challenge of an exercise program; finish the book you started; complete a home-project that you started a while back.  These efforts can strengthen the strong will which can advance you toward the finish line of forgiveness.  Please keep in mind that even when you reach that finish line of forgiveness, anger can resurface later.  Apply the good will, the free will, and the strong will again as you revisit the forgiveness process.

For additional information, see On the Importance of Perseverance when Forgiving.

I really do not understand this pie-in-the-sky idea that I must feel positively toward the people whom I forgive.  How about just some indifference toward them?

Think of forgiveness as a process.  We start out with anger or sadness or some other emotion that we find unpleasant.  As we grow in the moral virtue of forgiveness, the anger (or sadness) begins to diminish and we then can develop a kind of indifference toward that person. Yet, over time, and because forgiveness is a  moral virtue, we might continue to grow even more deeply in our appreciation of the other as a person.  This can lead to compassion, respect, generosity, and even love (the kind of love that is willing to be in service to the other for the other’s sake) toward that person.  So, you might want to think of indifference as one stop on the journey to greater perfection in the growth of this moral virtue of forgiveness.

For additional information, see The Four Phases of Forgiveness. 

I have a problem with this whole idea of forgiveness.  Forgiveness asks me to “just move on” or to “leave it in the past.”  How can I “leave it in the past” when it is constantly  nipping at my heals and the memories just won’t leave me alone?

Forgiveness is not just moving on or leaving something in the past.  As a moral virtue, forgiveness is focused on goodness toward particular persons, those who have been unjust to you.  As you forgive, you begin changing your view of that person and so this memory of “nipping at your heals” lessens.  Without this paradox of struggling to be good to those who were not good to you, it is very difficult to “leave it in the past.” Forgiving allows you to move into the future without that burden of continual unfinished business.

For additional information, see  The Four Phases of Forgiveness. 

I don’t feel anger.  So, I don’t need to forgive my father for ignoring me while I was growing up, right?

You do not have to feel anger to forge ahead with forgiving.  For example, are you feeling disappointed or sad?  Do you think you can have a genuine trusting relationship with your father now?  If not, then forgiving would be appropriate.  In other words, it is not only feelings of anger that motivate forgiving.  If you think you have been treated unfairly and this is getting in the way of your current relationship with your father, then forgiving would be appropriate if you choose to do so.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Defined.