After a drunk driving crash wiped out an entire family near Saskatoon in January 2016, two strangers spent many days in the same way. They both sat in the dark, rarely eating, burning with anger toward the same woman — the drunk driver.
The two men didn’t know each other. At the time, they didn’t want to.
Chad Mierau, then 37, had lost his “four favourite people on the planet” in the crash: his little sister Chanda Van de Vorst, 33, her husband Jordan, 34, and their two children Kamryn, 5, and Miguire, 2.
Spencer Michel, then 24, felt he had lost his mother, Catherine McKay, who drove with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit, then blew through a stop sign and killed the Van de Vorst family.
McKay pleaded guilty in June 2016 to four counts of impaired driving causing death and was sentenced to nine years in prison. She served four years in a healing lodge and is on day parole.
Today, the two men have found solace in their surprising friendship and a shared belief in the power of forgiveness. It’s something neither of them could have predicted during those dark days.
Mierau was in a “grief fog” for months after his sister and her family died, he said. He struggled to get out of bed or get dressed and forgot simple tasks like picking up his kids from school.
“Going days without eating because you just forget, or you don’t think about it, or you don’t care,” he said.
The businessman from Watrous, Sask., 120 kilometres southeast of Saskatoon, felt consumed by grief over the loss of his family and by rage toward the drunk driver.
He said he knew instinctively that something had to change.
“How am I able to release this thing off of my shoulders?” he remembers asking himself. “It’s a heavy weight.”
Meanwhile Michel, McKay’s son, was struggling, too.
After the crash, he was hit by a tsunami of vitriol toward his family on social media.
“There was death threats sent to me … people threatening my life, my children’s lives, wishing that we would be in a car accident and die,” he said.
On top of that, the young man said he was grappling with a sense of “betrayal” by his 49-year-old mother, who according to Michel had always told him to think about the consequence of his actions and to not drink and drive.
“She was the kind of person that would take the keys from my friends if she knew we were going out to have a beer. Or, you know … would drive out at two o’clock in the morning to give you a ride home,” Michel said.
He didn’t recognize the woman serving a federal sentence.
“She [became] a broken person. She’s going to live with the guilt of what she did for the rest of her life,” he said.
After the crash, Michel was also struggling with drinking and depression. He felt guilty that he didn’t do more to help his mother before the crash.
According to parole documents, McKay had experienced a lot of trauma in her life, then suffered a concussion in July 2015 that caused chronic pain, fuelling her intensifying alcoholism.
“I watched her go down the drain for a long time and, you know, never stepped in,” he said.
McKay’s son wanted to change course in his own life, much like Mierau, but he also wasn’t sure how.
Mierau began a “journey of self-reflection,” as he called it, and signed up for personal development courses and conferences. He said he was forced to confront his own past mistakes and hurtful actions.
“I ended up forgiving myself for things I was not proud of in my life, and in turn, forgave other people, including Catherine McKay.”
Mierau started thinking about McKay’s four adult children, as well, and wondering how they were faring.
“I was imagining, ‘What’s it like to have Mom go to prison?’ ” he said.
In December 2016, he sent a message to McKay’s daughter on social media.
“I remember the last line in my message was, ‘I hope my healing and hurting heart finds your healing and hurting heart, wherever you are, and we can have a conversation and figure this out.’ “
Since then, Mierau has met with four out of five of McKay’s kids, and become particularly close with her son, Michel.
‘Like a brother’
Michel agreed to meet with Mierau in the summer of 2019, but he was so worried that Chanda Van de Vorst’s brother might want revenge on his family that he didn’t invite Mierau inside his Regina home. Instead, the two men shared a coffee in Michel’s garage.
They talked, shed tears and formed a strong connection.
Michel was impressed by Mierau’s story of transformation and forgiveness, and said it gave him permission to forgive his mother, too.
“If this person can forgive her — wholeheartedly forgive her — then why can’t I?” he said.
Today, Michel turns to Mierau during his own dark moments. He considers him to be a role model and “like a brother.”
“In the end, I feel like we both gained a family member,” Michel said.
A book project
Mierau also mailed a short letter to McKay at the healing lodge where she was serving time in the summer of 2019. He hasn’t received a response or met with her.
He’s OK with that. His forgiveness wasn’t conditional on anything she had to say or do, he said.
He learned through McKay’s children that she was training for a marathon inside the healing lodge to raise money for MADD at the same time that he was doing the same thing.
He would like to meet privately with her one day.
Mierau published a book in July titled Surviving the Crash: Finding inner peace through forgiveness. He spreads his message of forgiveness with a fervent passion.
As he stands at his loved ones’ gravesites at Hillcrest Cemetery in Saskatoon, he’s no longer consumed by grief and anger. Instead, he imagines his sister laughing and acting silly, his brother-in-law snapping photographs, his nephew swinging a mini hockey stick and his niece’s sweet smile.
“Finding forgiveness and inner peace, it’s allowed me to let that weight on my shoulders dissipate.”