Decade after decade, Darold and Barbara Bigger have built their lives with honour, discipline, and devotion.
After settling on the campus of Walla Walla University in the north-west of the United States, Barbara became the manager of the student library. Darold had a dual career, serving as a pastor and as a chaplain for US Navy reservists. For a time, he was chief chaplain, having the rank of rear admiral. In the meantime, he also received his doctorate. They had reached peaks that very few people had ever dreamed of. There was no reason not to believe that everything would go on as brightly as it had gone before.
Then, all of a sudden, their lives were horribly changed by the news of their daughter Shannon’s murder. The tragic experiences Barbara had read about in student textbooks, and Darold had treated in soldiers who had gone through heartbreaking trauma, hit them when they least expected it. Thrown into a cyclone of emotions, turmoil and soul struggles, they were shocked to discover that they were in the same boat with their daughter’s killer. What would come out of this devastating revelation?
I know a few things about the personal tragedy that hit you completely unpredictably, at a peak moment in your life, while you were engaged in the complex activities of pastor, chaplain and teacher. With your permission, I would like to reopen this tragic chapter. Could you elaborate on what happened?
Darold: Yes, we are willing to discuss this subject, what that tragedy meant to us. Barbara, would you want to tell what happened to Shannon?
Barbara: Our eldest daughter graduated from Walla Walla College in 1995. She was doing an internship at Washington Adventist Hospital, which is near the federal capital on the other side of the country. She had been there for almost a year and had two more weeks to go, when a young man managed to break into her apartment—we still don’t know for sure how—and stabbed her to death. I received the news through the campus chaplain. And, of course, you never expect that to happen to you. I thought only other people were killed. A few days later, the young man was found and arrested, and has been in prison ever since.
Is it known if he had attacked other people before?
Darold: This has never been proven. There were suspicions, but no evidence was ever provided. He pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, attempted sexual assault and armed robbery. This seemed very strange to me, that he pleaded guilty to these acts. The murder actually took place in the state of Maryland, located in the vicinity of the federal district of Columbia, Washington, and in Maryland the death penalty is in force, so to avoid this fate…
… he pleaded guilty.
Darold: Yes, and now he’s going to spend the rest of his life in prison in Maryland.
So he will never be released?
Darold: No. For the charge of murder in the first degree, which means that the crime was premeditated, he was sentenced to life imprisonment without the right to parole. He also received a life sentence for attempted sexual assault and another 20 years in prison for armed robbery.
You must have been under tremendous shock in the beginning. Maybe you refused to believe any of that was even real. How did you survive the tragedy?
Barbara: It happened in 1995, on June 16, the day that Father’s Day is celebrated in the United States, and in our family it was my father’s birthday. For me, these dates will forever be linked to one another.
Darold: It’s been almost 20 years since this tragedy. Receiving such news is such a shock to the body that you can no longer think, you cannot make decisions with lucidity, all logic seems to disappear. That was a really difficult time. But God helped us to overcome it. And we were very privileged to be part of a community that immediately supported us.
Barbara: As Darold mentioned earlier, we are privileged to live on a wonderful campus, where all people know each other, and that was a time when we were simply surrounded by people who showed us in many ways that they cared about us.
Darold: This event has led to significant changes in both my and my wife’s lives, even in our personalities. Until then, I was generally a person whose words came easily. To illustrate, if you had suddenly asked me what I was thinking, I could have started talking right in the middle of the sentence that was going through my mind at that moment. I always felt it easy to find my words. But when Shannon was killed, I simply didn’t have anything to say for a long time.
Barbara: And I became very talkative. Shannon was a people-person. She would tell you far more details than you wanted to know about anything. Somehow, I became like her in many ways. For years, we had always been the last family to leave the church every week, because Darold, who took his role as pastor very seriously, had to talk to everyone and make sure everything was fine. But after Shannon was killed, he would disappear through the side door, while I wanted instead to talk to people.
What happened to your understanding of God?
Darold: In my case, I don’t know if the way I understand God has changed much, but many of the ideas I had theoretically solved in my mind before suddenly took on a different meaning. We did not blame God for what had happened. But I had a lot of questions. It is the old basic question of theodicy [God’s justice]: If God is omnipotent, why does He allow such things to happen? And if God loves us, then why does He not protect the people that are devoted to Him?
I think we have come to recognise that this world is a dangerous and hostile place. And in order to give everyone absolute freedom to make the decisions they want in life, God often allows painful and awful things to happen to people. We are not immune to these things to a greater extent than other people. It is a consequence of living in this world. These premises are not easy to accept, because they include ramifications related to the degree of involvement or non-involvement of God in a person’s daily life.
So from that moment on, as far as I was concerned, the main turmoil of my Christian experience, of my personal relationship with God, was to find a balance between a deistic vision of God—according to which God exists, but he is far from us and uninvolved in our problems—and a vision of a causal God, responsible for anything, no matter how small, that happens to us in life (for example, if I can’t find my pencil, I ask Him, “Lord, help me find my pencil”). I am not satisfied with either of these two extremes, but I am thus forced to struggle to find a balance between the two that will allow God to intervene supernaturally in people’s lives on certain occasions. And I think God does intervene supernaturally; I have witnessed such situations, but they do not happen very often.
How were things in your case, Barbara?
Barbara: I have not questioned God or accused him in any way, either. Maybe “I haven’t questioned him” is not the right expression. I still wonder why he chose not to intervene this time, but I don’t blame him for Anthony’s actions (this is the name of the man who killed Shannon). I plan to ask God questions, if it’s important, when I will be face to face with him.
The being that I am really angry with and that has created problems for me is Satan. I realised that he was attacking our family, and I wasn’t happy about that at all. I wanted him to know he wasn’t going to win. And I told him that one night. I was very upset and very sad! I was on my way home, in a big, old SUV I had at the time, and it was getting dark outside and it was raining. I hit the steering wheel with my hand and shouted, “I hate you!” I told Satan, “You will not win.” That was the end. I got rid of the anger, and since then everything has been fine.
Has this tragedy also changed the way you relate to people? Have you become cynical, full of resentment? Have you lost confidence in people?
Darold: Yes. I recently read about a study of young Americans: the generation of the 2000s, compared to previous generations, has the lowest degree of trust in their peers. It’s a terrible discovery.
Mutual trust—this was, as far as I can understand, a basic feature of the American nation.
Darold: In my case, here’s what happened a few months after Shannon was killed. For 5-6 months, I suffered so intensely that I couldn’t even be angry, as Barbara was. I was shocked when Anthony appealed in trial. He wanted to change his statement, say he was innocent of the crime, and demand that his sentence be reduced. This situation unleashed very strong feelings of anger and hatred towards him inside me. This was the man who had admitted to tying up our daughter and stabbing her to death, and now he wanted to escape without enduring the consequences of his deed. I was just appalled.
For a few weeks, I tried to deal with the situation. Looking back now, I realise it’s ridiculous, but it didn’t seem funny at the time. At that time I was teaching a course on stress management. I knew all the exercises designed for this: deep breathing techniques and relaxation. I knew these things, the way these exercises should be done. I knew them, but I didn’t want to do them. And when I tried to apply it, the method I taught didn’t work. I still had a knot in my stomach, my mouth was tense and my fist clenched. I was angry and couldn’t find a way to get rid of this feeling. I had also taught Christian spirituality classes in which I studied prayer, meditation, and practice, and I encouraged students to trust that God cares for us. Not even those exercises were helpful.
One morning, I arrived at church feeling desperate, very discouraged, and listened to the sermon. The people there didn’t know what I was going through. The campus chaplain there was the one who had told us about Shannon’s death. He was talking about the criterion given by Jesus, namely that those around us will realise that we are His disciples if we love one another. And here I was, a man full of resentment, angry, bitter, unable to do anything about these things. I felt completely defeated. Here was a simple thing that God wanted from me, and I couldn’t do it. And I recognised in my heart, more than I had ever done before, that I was a cynical, angry man, full of resentment. And that meant I needed God as much as Anthony did in his prison cell. Oh, God—in a way, Anthony and I were alike!
You were in the same boat.
Darold: That’s right, I was in the same boat with him. A few seconds after experiencing that feeling of despair, I remembered Paul’s statement in Romans chapter 5: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And to be convicted that Jesus did this for me not only when I was angry with my little sister or when I was annoyed that someone in front of me was driving slowly while I was in a hurry… When I saw myself as an angry, resentful person—this was Darold for whom Jesus had died—everything changed for me from that moment on.
Certainly, the fact that I felt what Jesus did for me, forgiving me when I was in the worst possible condition, was God’s gift to me. Because, now, the forgiveness of those who upset me or hurt me is a natural reaction of mine to God’s gift to me, and not something I accomplished on my own. This led me to study the concept of forgiveness for ten years.
Barbara and I are now teaching this subject. I have finished a book that is ready for publication at the moment. Together with a colleague, I conceived and filmed a seminar on forgiveness, which has just been launched. All these actions are the result of the tragedy we went through and they helped me a lot.
I took our grandchildren to Shannon’s grave and explained, “When Jesus comes, the graves will open and people will come out of them.” They thought it was a great idea, and I told them: “It really is a great idea.”
If I’ve understood correctly what you told me, were you and your wife a little out of sync during your suffering? How did you relate to each other when you were at different stages of suffering?
Darold: Fortunately, we allowed each other to suffer at our own pace. And this is, I think, something that many couples or families are unable to do, a situation that causes enormous stress. Even though we were going through different stages at different times—usually one had high morale and the other was destroyed, so to speak—we managed to support each other, we talked a lot. Even though we didn’t have much to say, we talked to each other anyway, we kept up to date with what was happening to us. The fact that you are allowed to go through the stages of suffering at your own pace is in itself a very helpful thing. Sometimes one of us wanted to be alone, sometimes one of us felt the need to talk, sometimes one of us felt happier or sadder than the other. And acknowledging that the reaction patterns are individual and unpredictable was a gift you gave me, Barbara.
Barbara: We gave it to each other. And our living daughter suffered in a different way from us.
Well, this is another chapter of the story.
Barbara: Our living daughter was 22 years old and Shannon was 25 years old. They were quite close in age. Next time you come, you will be able to talk to her. She is willing to discuss this subject, but she does not bring it up, not without being asked. But she, too, has overcome this situation, and now she is fine. She was engaged at the time, supported by her fiancé, who has now become her husband. However, she is an introvert and suffered most of the time on her own. She also faced some challenges.
This incident had an impact on our relatives and even on our friends. Just recently I read a note written by a friend of Shannon’s who was her classmate. She still remembers those events, and what happened to Shannon makes her anxious about life, about her own children, about their safety. Tragedies of this kind bring such issues into question.
Has your physical health been affected?
Barbara: I don’t think so. We aren’t aware of any impact.
Darold: Although Barbara did wonder if her mother’s health was not affected by this event. It was an extremely difficult thing to overcome for her mother. We all went to Maryland to be present at the sentencing. And on the way home, her mother began to feel worse and worse. She didn’t know what she had. She was later found to have pancreatic cancer, which was almost like an immediate death sentence. And she hadn’t had cancer in her family, so I think the stress of that event might have triggered her illness. We lost her a year later. This situation makes us simply eager to see the end of all such things.
These events gave you a whole new perspective on the return of Jesus, didn’t they?
Darold: Yes. The cemetery on the hill, located a short distance from where we made the recordings today, has been used by Adventists for a long time; for over 100 years. It’s called Mount Hope. Shannon is buried there, along with other people dear to us: Barbara’s mother, my father, and Pastor Decker, who baptised Barbara’s ancestors and the one who founded the school where we work. I regularly take our grandchildren there. I took them on one occasion, before they were old enough to understand the issues of death and resurrection, and I explained to them, “When Jesus comes, the graves will be opened and people will come out of them.” They thought it was a great idea, and I told them, “It really is a great idea.”
Thank you. I am very moved that you shared your experiences with me. May God continue to strengthen you and make you instruments of forgiveness, healing, and hope—heralds of the age to come.