Why the Grace Shown by James Foley's Parents Is Unfathomable to Me

I got mad at my son for cutting his finger the other day. He had accidentally broken the lightbulb in a lamp he dropped while loading the car for college, after I told him— specifically—to get a tool to remove the socket, or he would cut himself doing it. He ignored me, tried to remove the socket and cut himself, of course. I was steaming about it for hours. Didn't even feel sorry for him.


It kills me when my kids don't listen to me. I have so many "I told you so" moments, and let me tell you, those moments give me no pleasure. I don’t handle them very well. I wish my kids would just listen to me in the first place. Haven't they learned that I am almost always right? I also find it impossible to resist telling them I told them so.

Tonight I heard an interview with James Foley’s mother on NPR. It is hard for me to believe she can even speak right now—yet she not only speaks, she says beautiful things. Foley’s parents have consistently said the most remarkably graceful, lovely things, starting the very day after the video of their son’s beheading in Syria surfaced. They have only said things celebrating him, his spirit, his work, his life, his accomplishments, his bravery, his desire to tell suffering people’s stories. His mother expressed huge gratitude to the released hostage who memorized James' letter to his parents, and was happy to report his state of mind was positive, even in captivity. I am in awe of the Foleys' grace about their murdered son.

Even though they told him not to go back to Syria.

His mother let that drop in the interview. The interviewer kind of led her there; it wasn’t like she was dying to say it. She said, “Of course, we didn’t want him to go back to Syria.” He had, after all, already been kidnapped and tortured in Libya for 44 days while documenting Qaddafi’s fall. It was terrible. He made it out, and then, lo and behold, he wanted to go back into another warzone. That must have killed his parents. Imagine the conversations. His mother acknowledged that James had had a privileged upbringing—meaning he had lots of other choices—but said he felt driven to tell the Syrian people’s stories. She was proud of that.

I have not heard one angry or resentful word from James Foley’s parents. Not one word of anger or blame. Not for Obama or the government for failing to rescue him, no resentment for his fellow hostages who are still alive, some freed, no "why my son, and not someone else’s?" I have not even heard them blame ISIS, for pete’s sake. No calls for vengeance, airstrikes or swift justice.

It reminds me of my friend Amy*, whose husband Ben* died in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Almost made it out. Ran down 111 floors, then got killed by falling building parts. They found his body. Amy has three children, including my daughter’s preschool classmate at the time. I don’t think Amy ever gave a single crap about rooting out Al Qaeda, killing Osama bin Laden, or the war raged in her husband’s name.

I have seen other instances of exceptional grace shown by mothers whose children have been killed. I once interviewed a mother of a raped and murdered girl who visited her daughter’s rapists and murderers in prison, and came to understand that their lives had been terrible. She forgave them, vowed to help kids like them, started a support group for parents of murdered children, and fights for stricter gun control (ha!).

I can only imagine that James Foley’s parents achieved their state of grace and acceptance in stages. Foley was taken hostage by ISIS in November 2012. His parents must have run the scenario that he would not make it out alive through their heads over numerous sleepless nights between then and now. They must have practiced letting him go. You have to let your children go—even to their terrible fates.

Can I learn that? Can I outgrow the "I told you so" phase? 

Now the Foleys just seem proud of the man their son became. He was someone who wanted to document atrocities and suffering; who helped keep his fellow hostages’ spirits up; who probably made a few mistakes along the way, and didn't always listen. He was someone who, unfortunately, died young, but lived a life of his own choosing. That's what we all want for our children—right?

*Names changed to protect privacy.

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