Leila Abdallah and Bridget Sakr teach us how to repent, forgive and grieve

“Thank you, God, for the gift of repentance. For in being forgiven, we have the chance to repent and say sorry,” says Bridget Sakr, standing on the same place where her daughter Veronique Sakr was tragically killed.

It is exactly one year to the day since a drunk, drug-affected driver had careened off the road and onto the footpath killing Veronique (11), along with her three cousins – siblings Sienna (8), Angelina (12) and Antony Abdallah (13) – and injuring cousins Charbel and Mabella Kassis.

“I pray for the driver who killed Veronique, Anthony, Angelina and Sienna,” Bridget continues. “I ask, Lord, that you help him to begin to open his heart, so that he begins to understand your great love and repents for his actions. For I feel he is agonising and trapped in pain, traumatised. For God, you are the only one who has the power to touch his heart and judge his actions.”

She quotes the Bible verse 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

Next Bridget says she would love those who have gathered to commemorate the lives of the children at the site of the accident before they begin to offer other prayers, “to say one Our Father and one Hail Mary for the driver, so that he opens his heart to God for the pain that he’s caused all of us – three families and extended families in pain every day.”

“God invites us, he gives us the choice of free will. We know how powerful you are, God. We know what prayer did for Charbel. Let’s pray for the driver’s conversion,” she says.

“Let’s pray for the driver’s conversion” – Bridget Sakr

One year earlier, I had attended a similar prayer vigil, just a couple of nights after the tragedy, at the same location on Bettington Road, Oatlands, where the local community had begun gathering each night to mourn together and express support for the devastated families.

Now, I was standing beside Leila’s friend Bernadette, who became my friend a year earlier when I met her at the vigil, in the midst of that same community. I watched as they quickly slipped rosary beads hanging around their necks over their heads, and prayed the same prayers they had prayed one year earlier, racked in grief – ancient prayers that have kept Catholic believers’ hearts on course during the darkest of days for centuries. Before us, the same priests as last year stood alongside the Abdallah and Sakr families and their closest friends, guiding the service.

Travelling home from the vigil a year ago, I had typed furiously on the train, the words tumbling out. I had been disoriented by my own conflicting emotions – gratitude that I’d been able to experience the beauty of a tight, local and Catholic community holding each other in their pain, clashing with intense sorrow and helplessness in the face of parents Danny and Leila’s pain. Yet also awe at the deep Christian faith, acceptance of God’s sovereignty, and capacity to express forgiveness towards the driver and generosity towards the media.

“Nobody needs to put on a brave face. This family and local community is unmistakably devastated by the loss of Sienna, Angelina and Antony Abdallah and Veronique Sakr. And yet, there is very real hope in the Lord here, too. The situation is both 100 per cent grief, and 100 per cent hope,” I had written. “And the experience is undeniably dignifying for all.”

“These two families because they opened themselves and showed us how to grieve” – Patricia Thomas, Grief Care

One year later, that hope has borne fruit. Charbel Kassis, who was badly injured in the accident, has recovered, after much prayer. He helps to lead those gathered in prayer. His sister, Marbelle, who also survived the horrific ordeal, is also there, in tears. It’s her birthday. A year ago, her cousins were excitedly preparing to celebrate her birthday, Danny tells the crowd, and leads us in singing “Happy Birthday” to her. Generous again, he seems to want to make sure she is celebrated, despite the sadness it will clearly always represent for her.

Most of the evening, though, is committed to ensuring that something positive emerges from the ashes of the great loss experienced by these families. Bridget has established Heartfelt – “an online platform to help people in grief, experiencing trauma, loss and pain, where we can get together and talk about our grief”. And, together with Danny and Leila, they have launched the annual i4Give Day – earning the endorsement of New South Wales State Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

But as remarkable as this determination to allow something helpful to emerge from their suffering is, their legacy is much greater than this. Patricia Thomas from Grief Care at Rookwood Cemetery, who has ministered particularly to Leila over the past year, said it best at last night’s vigil.

“I am in awe because this time last year began one of the greatest experiences as a grief practitioner I have ever experienced,” she says. “Blessed are those who mourn, they shall be consoled. Those who gathered this time last year, and you who are gathered here tonight, have shown us how we grieve in community.

“You come here tonight, as others have come from last year and onwards, to these two families because they opened themselves and showed us how to grieve. They were unafraid to shed tears, to express their hurt, to express their anger and they welcomed us consoling them. They did not grieve alone … Let us all be open with what hurts us, our grief, and let us receive each other in our vulnerability, our fragility when we’re hurt and need to be carried. These families allowed us to carry them.”