The power of forgiveness is incredible.

Forgiveness isn’t always easy, especially when someone has hurt you or taken something from you. But being able to find it within you to intentionally let go of that hurt, anger and resentment is also a really powerful thing.

One man reminded us all of that when he forgave a stranger who accidentally took away a huge part of his life: his family.

A Tragic Accident

two men standing in front of a wall with bouquets hanging

Back in October 2006, Matt Swatzell had just finished a 24-hour shift. The firefighter paramedic was exhausted, but he had to get in the car to drive home. Unfortunately, that’s when his life changed forever.

“It was literally three or four seconds that it took to nod off and to cross the center line and to meet the other car,” he recalled to Today. “I can still see it. I can still smell it. The horrendous noise and the glass breaking.”

The 20-year-old rookie had collided with a pregnant woman named June Fitzgerald and her 19-month-old daughter. Tragically, the mother and her unborn baby didn’t make it, but the daughter, Faith, survived.

The news rocked Swatzell to his very core.

“I’m supposed to be a helper. The EMT and the paramedic and fireman that helps in these tragic situations, and here I am, caused this,” he said.

A Man Becomes a Widower

At the hospital, a pastor named Erik Fitzgerald also had his world torn to shreds when he was informed his wife and unborn baby didn’t make it. After a conversation with a grief counselor, he walked into his daughter’s hospital room.

“She crawled into my lap and then she just went to sleep,” he recalled of that awful day. “And I was thankful because I didn’t have to pretend that everything was okay.”

It wasn’t long before prosecutors asked Fitzgerald whether he wanted to pursue the maximum sentence against the man who had crashed into his wife.

Somehow, the pastor was able to reach deep down and seize an opportunity to practice forgiveness. He felt that enough lives had been ruined, and he didn’t want any more destruction to come from this terrible incident.

“I remembered somebody said this in a sermon — in moments where tragedy happens or even hurt, there’s opportunities to demonstrate grace or to exact vengeance,” he explained to the outlet. “Here was an opportunity where I could do that. And I chose to demonstrate grace.”

An Unexpected Encounter

Although Fitzgerald forgave Swatzell in his heart, the pair never spoke during the court case. There, a judge gave the firefighter community service and a fine, but he was otherwise free to continue his life. The guilt, however, was overwhelming.

On the two-year anniversary of the crash, Swatzell went to the store to buy a condolence card for Fitzgerald and his daughter. That’s when he ran into Fitzgerald.

“Erik starts walking out of the grocery and starts walking towards my truck,” recalled Swatzell.

“He was just bawling,” Fitzgerald added. “So I just walked up and I just hugged him. What do you say? Sometimes things are best said with no words.”

It was a meeting that would, once again, change both men’s lives.

“That was the biggest relief I’d ever felt. He just said from the start that he forgave me,” Swatzell explained. “Just hearing him say those words, it just impacted my life completely.”

A New Friendship Emerges

That day, the men talked for about two hours. During that time they forged an undeniable bond and decided to stay connected. So they began to meet up regularly, talking about life and how they could move forward.

“He said, ‘Don’t let this define you,’” Swatzell explained a dozen years later in the Today interview. “Meeting with Erik, it gave me hope. That we’re going to be okay.”

During that time, Swatzell also got to know Faith. He married and had children of his own. As for Fitzgerald, he moved to Florida but remained in touch. These days the men continue to spend time together throughout the year and during holidays.

“He’s like a big brother to me. We have a lot of fun together. As weird as it may sound and crazy, but we do. It’s unique,” Swatzell said. “Just seeing Faith, holding my kids — it puts a smile on my face,” he continued.

“It hurts to see that, but it’s the cards that we were dealt. And now it’s our story together. It reminds me that there’s grace and there’s hope and there’s good.”

Practicing Forgiveness

In the interview, Swatzell was clear that, although something good did eventually come out of this incredibly tragic story, he doesn’t know if he’s forgiven himself for that day. But what he does know is that Fitzgerald’s forgiveness has allowed him to move on and live a life that may not have otherwise been possible.

At the end of the day, what happened was an accident. By finding it in his heart to recognize that and accept it, Fitzgerald did the most powerful thing he could have done: forgive. If he can do that, it reminds us that we, too, can forgive for much smaller things in our own lives.

Sometimes when we’re hurting, we want the person who hurt us to suffer more. But by holding onto that resentment and anger, we continue to hurt ourselves. In order to truly heal and move on, we need to let go.

Acknowledge your feelings, then work to release them. Choosing forgiveness and releasing those emotions is a powerful thing, as this story proves. It takes patience and determination, but it can be done. Forgiveness matters because sometimes it’s the only way to heal and move on with life, despite what may have happened in our past.

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