In November 2008 my husband, Alan, and 13-year-old daughter, Naomi, travelled to Mumbai, India for a modern meditation retreat held at the Oberoi Hotel. In June that year, Alan had made a trip to Mumbai to scout out locations for this retreat and had been about to make a deal with another hotel when the Oberoi matched the same group rate at the last minute. As it was in a much better location on Marine Drive, he signed the deal with the Oberoi. The following month, David Headley, a Pakistani American who was working for a terrorist group, was scouting locations for an attack that would take place that November. As he was waiting for a movie at the Inox theatre in Nariman Point, he wandered into the lobby of the Oberoi Hotel, adding that location to his target list.

On 14 November I said goodbye to Alan and Naomi at Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Little did I know that would be the last time I would see them. When I stopped for lunch at a Chinese restaurant on the way home, I was surprised to see this message on my fortune cookie: “Today your luck has changed forever.” What could that possibly mean?

We kept in touch through email and phone calls over the next week, and on 24 November I had my last conversation with them. Naomi had just had her nose pierced and had emailed photos that day. She was so excited as I shared the news that the test results had come in for her entrance examination to a top girls’ boarding school in New York. She had scored 95% overall and was full of joy when I told her. As Alan and I excitedly discussed all of this, our last words to each other were “I love you.”

The next day I got on a plane to Tampa, Florida to visit my parents, sons, brothers and sister for our Thanksgiving holiday. When I checked my email the following day, there were no messages from either Alan or Naomi. Later that afternoon as my mother and I were getting ready to watch Oprah Winfrey on TV, the phone rang. It was the managing director of Synchronicity Foundation, which was sponsoring the modern meditation retreat and where Alan was vice-president. She told me to turn on the news right away because the Oberoi Hotel was being attacked by terrorists. I dropped the phone in disbelief as my family came running in asking what was happening. For the next two days we watched in horror as the terror attack in Mumbai went on and on and on. We had no idea where Alan and Naomi were and prayed that they were safe in their rooms. Friends and family called, joined our prayers and called upon their friends to pray with us.

Because Alan and Naomi were unaccounted for, my eldest son, Aaron, sent their photos to CNN in case they were unconscious somewhere in Mumbai with no identification on them. Emails of more prayers began pouring in from all over the world. We felt comforted by this loving support from so-called strangers.

It was Friday 28 November when I got a call at 6am from the US Consulate in Mumbai. “We’re so sorry, Mrs Scherr. It has been confirmed that your husband and daughter have both been killed by terrorists in the restaurant at the Oberoi Hotel.”

Both of them? No, not both of them!” My heart broke into a million pieces, my mind lost in a state of incomprehension and disbelief. How could this be happening? It felt like a horrible nightmare that just kept going on and on. Where were Alan and Naomi? How could they both be dead? I felt myself in a swirl of overwhelming emotions. My head felt dizzy and rubbery, like it was being stretched, pulled and hammered. How could I go on living? I felt unable to take even one step forward away from the phone. I just stood there until my family ran over to embrace me and we cried together. My life had just ended in the snap of a bullet that ruptured the very core of my existence.

For the next few hours my family and I sat together, numb with shock. As we watched the aftermath on CNN we saw the photo of the one lone surviving terrorist. Who is this deluded and confused young man? What would I have to say if I could meet him face to face? There are no words to describe my feelings of total and complete loss at that time, but over the next few months I found myself feeling a human connection, even to this terrorist. My thoughts drifted to Mumbai, and I began an inner dialogue and wrote an open letter to Ajmal Kasab:

We exist at the opposite extremes of life, but yet are forever connected by the Mumbai attack.

Life as I knew it has now ended. Just like that, a family is no more, and so a part of me has died along with them. I am no longer the wife and mother of Alan and Naomi Scherr. Your life was supposed to end in the Mumbai attack. Your colleagues were each killed one by one, but you survived. You survived, but life as you knew it, too, has ended.

You may have destroyed many but the sacred life that resides in each of us can never be destroyed, no matter how big and powerful your weapon.

After these thoughts I came back to the moment sitting on the sofa watching the news with my family as I felt an inner prompting, “As Jesus Christ said long ago, forgive them, they know not what they do.” I blurted out, “We must forgive them. There is already enough hate. We must live in love and compassion.” I remember feeling a ray of hope as peace entered my heart. Nothing can remove the tremendous pain of that loss, but I chose to bring love to this world – a choice that would bring healing and possibly transformation.

The following week I was questioned about my decision to forgive. “How could you?” the news media asked sceptically. This was considered a controversial response to an act of terror.

It is important to understand that forgiveness is not condoning a despicable act. Forgiveness means letting go of anger and feelings of revenge. Forgiveness means continuing to love in the face of tragic death.

If I refuse to be terrorised, a terrorist has no power over me. If I forgive, I am free. This process of forgiveness has taken much more time and requires a deep level of releasing the past as I learn to integrate this tragic experience with the rest of my life. There are still many moments of sadness with tears of grief, but love is my purpose and reason for living.

I am now inspired to spend the rest of my life connecting with people around the world to create a culture of peace, love and compassion. Our survival as a human race depends on it.

Kia Scherr is President of One Life Alliance, a global peace initiative.