By Nick Charles
April 23, 2001 12:00 PM

The stories were almost too difficult to put into words. In a sunlit lounge at Stanford University, about 17 still grieving mothers, fathers, spouses and siblings described how they had lost loved ones to the decades-long political and sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. Margaret McKinney, 69, told of her 21-year search for the body of her son Brian, killed in 1978. “I don’t know who looked after my other children,” said the retired West Belfast cashier, “because they lost a mother as well as their brother.” Quietly weeping, Phyllis McParland, 59, was remembering how husband Sean was shot and mortally wounded while babysitting their grandchildren. As silence fell upon the room, Fred Luskin, 46, a social psychologist and therapist, told them, “It is important to see yourself fighting the bad stuff, not succumbing to it. You can say, ‘I’ve suffered enough. I’ve lost someone very dear to me. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve had enough. No more. Show me the way out.’ ”

Which is just what Luskin was there to do. By the end of the week most of the group, who had been invited to attend Luskin’s forgiveness workshop at Stanford University’s Center for Conflict Negotiation, had found some peace—if not within their country, at least within themselves. “I had prayed to God to have someone come along and help me,” says Pat Campbell, 65, whose son Philip was gunned down in 1992. “In eight days Fred taught you how to cope and look into the future.”

No mean feat. The grievances Luskin usually addresses—unfaithful spouses, unsympathetic employers, distant parents—pale in comparison with the miseries related by the Irish visitors. “You learn to live with your feelings,” says Pearl Marshall, 58, whose policeman son Michael was ambushed in 1989. “But it keeps eating at you and eating away at you, all the time.”

Luskin understands. ” ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is a rule, isn’t it?” he reminded them during one session. “But all of you have lost someone because someone else broke that rule, and that was something over which you had no control.” Employing real-life analogies, Luskin challenges workshop participants to face their pain, assess the good left in their lives and let go of their anger.

Bonded by the stories they shared, some workshop alums now meet once a month in Portadown, southwest of Belfast. But nothing entirely erases the past. “We knew we didn’t have to forgive those who wronged us,” says Karen Armstrong, 44, who lost a brother in 1976. “We just have to find peace.”

Luskin learned peaceful accommodation from his parents. His retired accountant father, Phillip, 87, and homemaker mother, Barbara, who died in January, taught their only child to “never be afraid to do the right thing.” Luskin earned a psychology degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1978. After marriage and a divorce, he was minding his health food store in Santa Cruz in April 1985 when a recent law school grad named Jan Krinsley walked in. “I knew she was it,” says Luskin. “Immediately!” Married in 1986, Luskin and Krinsley, 44, now a second-grade teacher, share an airy condominium in Redwood City, Calif., with their kids Anna Rose, 14, and Danny, 8, and their husky-shepherd mix Misty.

While Luskin was getting a 1999 Ph.D. in counseling and health psychology from Stanford, his ease at getting people to open up impressed Byron Bland, 51, codirector of the conflict negotiation center. Bland introduced him to Norma McConville, 59, a Northern Ireland peace activist who brought the participants together. Luskin’s work has “softened him up significantly over the years,” says Krinsley. “Not that he was ever a hard person, but he’s a much kinder person.”

Something similar might be said of Margaret McKinney. “Being here with Fred has not only changed my life,” says McKinney, who brought daughters Sandra, 37, a telephonist, and Linda, 42, a hairdresser, to Stanford. “It’s changed my children’s.” Linda looks at her mother and smiles. “It’s nice to have her back,” she says.

Nick Charles

Karen Grigsby Bates in Palo Alto and Nina Biddle in Belfast