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Letting go, despite unspeakable suffering

  • Article by: Gail Rosenblum
  • Star Tribune
  • April 2, 2009 - 6:46 AM

In the end, Scott County District Judge Mary Theisen knew there was nothing she could say to bring comfort to the Olson family. Still, she commended them for their patience throughout 17 agonizing months of evidence-gathering, and for their belief in and respect for the legal process.

But the Olsons, whose 24-year-old daughter, Katherine Ann, was killed by Michael Anderson, continue to do something even braver. For all the rhetoric we desperately want to hear about the "trial is over and healing can begin," they speak the truth we need to hear. Healing is a lifelong proposition.

"My faith has been tested," said the Rev. Rolf Olson, minutes after Anderson was sentenced to life in prison for luring Olson's vivacious, curly-haired daughter to her death through a bogus Craigslist baby-sitting ad. "I do that pastor thing ... evil, forgiveness, God's grace, sin." The 54-year-old pastor at Richfield Lutheran Church, standing 6-foot-1, lean and white-haired, shakes his head. All of that now eludes even him.

As for what needs to be done, he finds a comforting clue in the New Testament. "It defines forgiveness as 'to cut free, to let go.' We are attempting to do that with Mr. Anderson. We have a lot of living to do, a lot of loving to do. Forgiveness is a process," he added after a while. "There is no rush."

His wife, Nancy, is candid about her own struggle. While "the albatross of the trial" is over, the prospect of moving forward without Katherine weighs heavily on her. She is trying not to allow sorrow or anger to consume her, but how does a mother do that exactly?

"We scream. We act weird," she said. She and Rolf have made a pact that they can say anything they are thinking without judgment from the other.

In her pocket she carries a letter from a friend with a quote she reads over and over: "There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone."

For now at least, Nancy is not interested in understanding the killer, in reaching out to him. "I will not give that much power to that pathetic human being," said Nancy, 54, an English teacher who has taken a five-week leave of absence. "We don't have a relationship, nor do I want one. I refuse to carry him around with me. Others will have to pray for him."

Katherine's younger brother, Karl, 23, struggles to force himself to talk about his beloved sister in the past tense. "Purple," he says, "is Katherine's favorite color." Karl put his post-college life on hold when his sister died, and is trying to figure out how to get back on track. Katherine's older sister, Sarah Richter, 27, has moved into what she calls "a new normal." Wearing Katherine's purple V-neck sweater to the sentencing Wednesday, Richter said through tears that her world is now defined by lack of sleep, a hesitancy to trust, a heightened sense of anxiety. And crushing emptiness.

There is no doubt that Barbara and Steven Anderson face their own demons. The Olsons were surrounded by purple-clad family, friends and churchgoers on Wednesday, so many that some were turned away. Michael's parents sat shoulder to shoulder, still as stones and wholly alone. Barbara dabbed at her eyes as her son's disturbing life was unraveled in public.

But theirs is a different kind of grief. For as long as they live, the Andersons will be able to sit across from their son, look into his eyes if he will allow it, hear his voice, breathe his air and inch toward understanding. The Olsons have no such option.

"My life was forever changed by Mr. Anderson's evil," Rolf Olson said, his voice strong and steady like the spiritual leader he is. "He is a thief of the future, of our family's joy."

So the Olsons will grieve. The rawness will subside, but it will always linger. They will hang Katherine's stocking at Christmas, leave a chair for her at the table, and honor her memory. "To our dying day, we will tell kooky Katherine stories," Nancy said, holding family photographs as she headed out of the courthouse.

"We will do our best to forget him, and reclaim all that is good."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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