07/17/2011 03:14 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2011

The "Other" Diana Ross & the Power of Forgiveness

When my friend Terrell Ross first introduced me to his wife, I struggled to stifle a chuckle.

Diana... Ross? C'mon!

The "Other" Diana Ross"

Her famous name seemed even more ironic as I came to know her.  Quite in contrast to her brash diva namesake, the "other" Diana Ross was soft-spoken, kind, and demure.

Only more recently did I learn that Diana's outward modesty belied an extraordinary inner fortitude.

In October 2006, Terrell -- her beloved husband of more than three decades -- died after a much-too-quick battle with a particularly pernicious and virulent strain of cancer.

And then just three years later, on September 11, 2009, her youngest daughter Amanda, aged 28, was brutally murdered by her ex-fiancé, just a few hundred yards from where Diana was gardening at her home in Lexington, Kentucky.

Because the killer, Steve Nunn, was a well-known politician -- a former state legislator and gubernatorial candidate, as well as the son of a former governor -- a local media melée erupted.  Nunn was quickly apprehended, Amanda was buried among much pomp and circumstance, and politicians raced to introduce legislation to honor her memory.

The emotional toll on Diana, expectedly, was extraordinary.  A touching piece by the Lexington Herald-Leader's Jack Brammer illuminated the turmoil of Diana's personal 9/11, as she revealed in court documents:

"Amanda's murder has affected every aspect of my life... I was paralyzed to the point of not being able to function on a daily basis. I remain impaired by the loss. Despite my desire to prevent it, the murder has changed me. The void that remains cannot be filled. I can't escape the reality that the life we enjoyed will never return."

And yet, quite unexpectedly, the shy and grieving Ross soldiered on, ensuring that her daughter had not died in vain. Diana understood that with the public's short attention span, there was only a narrow window to seek larger justice in Amanda's name.

So when state House leaders introduced and then passed "Amanda's Law," legislation that would dramatically expand the use of GPS monitoring technology to protect victims of domestic violence, Diana Ross appeared resolutely at nearly every press conference and public rally. And when the GOP-controlled state Senate stripped the bill of some of its most critical provisions -- and continued to reject reform that would have finally placed dating partners like Amanda under the protection of domestic violence laws -- Diana Ross weathered the law's official signing ceremonies, with stiff backbone and painted smile, knowing that some new protections were better than none at all.

But perhaps most remarkably, Diana Ross publicly forgave her daughter's murderer. She wrote to the court: "My faith compels me to forgive Steve Nunn. Refusal to do so would harm only me."

I can't imagine finding the same measure of strength to forgive someone who had harmed one of my precious daughters. Like many, I have a hard enough time forgiving others for the smallest slights and transgressions.

But Diana Ross' faith is resolute.  And the Gospels consistently reveal that Jesus instructs Christians like Diana to "forgive and you will be forgiven" (Luke 6:37; Matthew 6:14; Mark 11:25).  My own Jewish instruction teaches on the highest of all holy days, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), that we must forgive -- and seek forgiveness from -- our neighbors before we ask for God's absolution.

As Diana also recognizes, forgiveness is critical to one's own self-interest. Scientific evidence is mounting that bitterness results in long-term health problems; while forgiveness offers numerous benefits, including lower blood pressure, stress reduction, a lower heart rate, fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and a reduction in chronic pain.  As the proverb declares, holding onto a grudge is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.  
By contrast, as Holocaust survivor Corrie Ten Boom revealed, "Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you."

Diana Ross' example also teaches us that to forgive does not mean to forget. She did not rest until justice was done for her daughter:  when Steve Nunn was sentenced to life in prison without parole.  It is Diana's prayer that the case "will send a message that acts of domestic violence will be met with accountability and just punishment."

So it's up to the rest of us to carry Diana's message to courthouses and Capitols and community centers across America.  Urge your state legislators to pass tough legislation that empowers law enforcement to crack down on perpetrators of domestic violence and to protect its victims.  Insist, in today's modern culture, that dating partners and live-in lovers receive the same protections as their married counterparts.   And if you or someone you know is being victimized by domestic violence, report it immediately. Here's the National Domestic Violence Hotline's Web site, with links to resources in all 50 states.

The singer Diana Ross has been an inspiration to millions of girls worldwide. The "other" Diana Ross will never be as famous, but she is no less deserving of our respect and emulation.  When confronted with an unspeakable tragedy, she stopped, and in the name of love, she provided both a model for forgiveness, as well as a compelling case for justice.

What an incredible role model for my daughters. And for the rest of us as well.