Category Archives: Blog

New Yorker Article on Accidental Killing

Several months ago the writer Alice Gregory posted on this site her interest in talking with CADIs. Many of you responded by generously sharing your stories and insights. Her article on the experience of accidental killing and the lack of resources to support CADI’s (my acronym for those who have “caused accidental death or injury”) has been published in this week’s New Yorker magazine:https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/18/the-sorrow-and-the-shame-of-the-accidental-killer.

I think the article shows great compassion and insight, and I hope it will make a difference by raising awareness and motivating some psychotherapists, trauma specialists, or others to focus on this neglected group.  It is already helping individuals (and their friends and family members) struggling with the experience of accidental killing. For instance, the article has dramatically increased traffic to this website. If you see more comments than usual showing up on the site, that is why.

The vast majority of comments I’ve received about this article, and other published work on CADIs, have been appreciative and supportive. A number of people have written to me about urban planning, public policy, engineering, and other programs and interventions intended to prevent car vs. pedestrian, car. vs. bicycle or car vs. car collisions. I will be looking into these programs more and will post about some of the more promising efforts. If you know about this, please write to me and share your experience or recommendations.  I’m also interested in efforts to prevent other kinds of accidents, including workplace accidents, gun accidents, boating accidents, and the like.

Of course I strongly believe that CADI’s are deserving of compassion and support.  With that comes an acceptance of responsibility and accountability.  As awareness and understanding increase in our society, I believe that people will be more willing to invest in whatever steps are needed to reduce the number of accidents — better roads, bike lanes, improved lighting, new technologies, and so forth.  This will make our world safer and, over time, the number of CADIs will decline.

Channeling Guilt Into Growth: Reflections on the Anniversary of an Accident

This June marks the 40th anniversary of the accident that has so affected my life – an 8 year old boy darted in front of my car and was killed. Not a single day has gone by since then when I have not thought about that child. For the first year or two, in the grip of acute and post-traumatic stress, memories of the accident dominated my consciousness. In the middle of a meeting at the office or an evening out with friends, an image of the child would flash into my mind, pulling me away from the here and now and stoking my grief and guilt. Later, the memories became a harsh way of punishing myself. Whenever I felt celebratory or proud, some inner voice would say, “Remember what you did. You don’t deserve happiness. And it can happen again, so keep your guard up.”

I still think of the child every day, and occasionally the memories can still jolt me. For the most part, however, my thoughts and feelings about the accident and my role in it are far gentler than they used to be. I choose to honor this child, his family, and my own suffering by striving to live with purpose, appreciation and awareness. I regularly fail at this of course but I keep at it.

I hope and believe that better support for CADIs will lead to a more compassionate society  – and that is helpful to all of us, whatever our life circumstances – victim, CADI, bystander, etc.

As our communities begin to understand how common accidents are and how many people are suffering because they accidentally killed or injured someone, we might see declines in risky behaviors such as distracted or drunk driving. As more people understand the pain that CADIs experience and extend support, we can create a more caring society. And, with such support, as CADIs learn to transform guilt and post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic growth, we will be able to give more of ourselves to others.

I still mourn for the child who died on the road that horrible day. I grieve for the pain that his family – and mine – endured. But I am committed to the effort of channeling this grief in productive directions, by offering support for others, by writing, and most of all by trying to show kindness toward others. To me, it’s the only response that makes any sense at all in the face of senseless tragedy.

 

Important Request to CADIs

To my readers: I was contacted by Alice Gregory, a talented journalist who is writing an article about CADIs. This is a great opportunity to advance understanding and support for people involved in these tragic events. Alice would very much like to hear from CADIs other than me — At my request, she has written the introduction that follows. Please follow up with her if you are interested.
Hello all– My name is Alice Gregory, and I’m a NYC-based journalist working on an article about people who have inadvertently caused death to another person, be it in a car accident or any other way. I would love to speak with some of you and hear your stories: how you’re managing to understand what happened, what sort of setbacks you’ve encountered, coping strategies you’ve found helpful. The terms of our conversation (whether I use your name, for example) would be entirely up to you. Examples of my work can be found at alice-gregory.com, and if you’re interested, please send me an email at aliceagregory@gmail.com (there’s a sneaky “a” in the middle there.) Thanks so much and take care.

Holiday Blues

The holiday blues is a well-known, even clichéd, phenomenon, but it’s true that this season can be especially challenging for CADIs. Some CADIs tell me that they are unable to muster the celebratory spirit that others expect of them. Some feel stricken with guilt and grief, knowing that another family is mourning a loss. Some feel that they do not deserve to be happy or receive gifts.

If you are in this situation, it is helpful to simply acknowledge your feelings, doing your best to withhold judgement. This might mean finding some private time every day to write in a journal, meditate, pray, rest, or cry. You don’t have to put the full scope of your distress on display, but neither do you have to fake happiness.

If you can, consider providing some form of community service during the holiday season. I believe that we honor the memory of our victims when we do this. You can serve Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter or VA hospital, visit children in the hospital, or deliver a meal to a homebound senior. There are dozens of choices – if you are not up to interacting with people, you can pick up litter on the beach, bring a few bags of old clothes to Goodwill, or offer to help out at your local animal shelter. You can also draft a guest blog and submit it to me for consideration for the website.

As most readers know by now, I believe in the healing powers of art and nature. This season, let’s take some time to listen to music that moves us, wander through a museum, or bundle up and take a walk in the woods. Let’s play an instrument, paint, draw, or write – and if you don’t have artistic talents, consider writing a poem anyway. These activities get us out of our heads and connect us to soul and spirit.

As I write this, I am popping chocolate candies into my mouth at an alarming rate! Sugar is my way of dulling unpleasant feelings like the holiday blues, but it leaves me feeling even worse, physically and mentally. So I hereby resolve to be more mindful of my eating this season. You might want to do the same, not to deny yourself the pleasure of delicious food but to help you feel better. The same goes for drinking, of course – remember that alcohol is a depressant.

Many therapists take some time off around the holidays, and the temporary absence of this support can be difficult. Your therapist should have someone “on call” to talk with you if needed. You can also call the suicide prevention line at any time of the day or night; and you can go to the ER if you need immediate attention.

Finally, remember that your accident does not define you. You could not control what happened, but you do have choices about how to respond. Even if you feel utterly stuck, the truth is that you are on a journey. It may be a challenging trip, full of unexpected obstacles, but you are moving toward solace, personal growth, and acceptance. Wherever you are in this journey, I hope you will take a few minutes over the next few weeks to look up at the night sky, or a snow-covered tree, or a simple wooden cross, or the flickering Chanukah candles, or a child’s face — and remember there is beauty in this world.

I wish us all a year of peace.

 

 

Family and Friends — Stress and Anxiety

If you are a relative or friend of a CADI, one of the major challenges you may face is managing your own anxiety. This person that you love and perhaps rely on is suddenly in deep distress. It is extremely upsetting to see him or her suffer and to feel helpless in the face of it.

On top of this, you may have a whole set of worries – will he be arrested or sued? Will she be able to take care of the children or go back to work? Will he get over this distress, or will he have some kind of breakdown? What will this trauma do to the family, to your own relationship, and to your broader social and community networks?

For a while, the CADI may not be fully available as a partner, friend, or co-worker. All of a sudden you find yourself attempting to manage your own responsibilities and those of the CADI as well (e.g., covering for him at work or taking care of the kids), while also helping him deal with psychological distress along with possible physical injuries, legal issues, car insurance, and the like. On top of that, other people may be texting and emailing to find out what happened, share their own concerns and compassion, and all too often offer advice you really don’t want or need, at least at the time.

As if this isn’t stressful enough, we often have unrealistic ideas of how we are supposed to respond to such tragedies. For instance, you might feel like you have to be available 24/7 to deal with any needs the CADI may express. You might fear that you’ve said something wrong and made everything worse. You might believe you have no rights to anger, fear, or grief. You might be confused or uncertain about how to help. You might also disagree with the CADI about certain issues, such as whether to retain a lawyer or whether to tell friends or family members what happened.

The CADI’s accident may create trauma not just for him, but also for family and friends. Just as you strive to support the CADI, you must also strive to support yourself. Reach out to your friends and relatives, consider psychological counseling, and allow yourself to take some time out to rest and recharge. You may even find that you are experiencing some trauma symptoms yourself, such as intrusive thoughts, flashbacks to the moment you learned of the accident (or witnessed it), difficulty sleeping, and so forth. If such symptoms are very distressing to you or last for more than a few weeks, I encourage psychotherapy.

You will have to decide how much of your own thoughts, feelings and experiences to share with the CADI. It will not be helpful to “unload” your feelings and fears in his or her presence. Save that for others. This does not mean you should avoid intimacy or communication; it does mean that you should recognize and respect the stress and trauma that the CADI is experiencing.

Thank you for caring about the CADI in your life. I cannot express how important – and how beautiful — your love and support are for all of us who have caused accidental deaths or injuries.

 

No Such Thing as an Accident?

 

Have you ever heard anyone say, “There’s no such thing as an accident?”  There is plenty of support for this view in books and popular culture. It’s more or less a staple of new age thinking that we call all experience to us, including accidents. Even Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, did not believe in accidents and considered them manifestations of unconscious desires or impulses.

These ideas upset me after my accident – did my accident mean I put out into the world some terrible, fierce energy? Did my unconscious hostility lead to someone’s violent death? Did the accident emerge from some inexplicable spiritual deficit or need?

Today, I do not believe that “there’s no such thing as an accident.” I know too many lovely, caring people who are CADI’s. I do not think their accidents reveal anything about their psychological make-up or their soul. I think the accidents demonstrate that we, like everyone else, have imperfect control over ourselves and over the world around us.

To me, calling a car crash or some other incident an “accident” does not mean one is blameless. It means that no harm was intended. It’s still incumbent on us to ask ourselves if we made a mistake and, if necessary, to take action such as seeking treatment for alcohol or drug abuse. We can also identify other steps we can take to improve safety, such as advocating for a stop light at a busy intersection.

Having completed this appraisal process, perhaps we should try to accept that certain things are simply unknowable, including some of the whys and what-ifs of serious accidents. We can say with some assurance, “the accident occurred because a little boy ran across the road without looking for cars,” or “the accident occurred because I was texting and didn’t notice that the car ahead of me was stopped.” It’s another thing entirely to wonder if the accident occurred as a result of Karma or some spiritual deficiency or need. We probably won’t have the answer to that, at least in our lifetimes.

What we can do, however, is let the experience of being a CADI motivate us to put our best selves into the world. We cannot change what happened, but we can resolve to live and love with greater mindfulness. It’s easier said than done, especially when PTSD gets in the way, but it’s the only way I can make any sense at all out of these tragic accidents.

 

How to Find a Therapist

I often recommend psychotherapy for people who have been involved in serious accidents, but how does one find a good therapist?

Psychotherapists can have medical degrees (psychiatrists), doctoral degrees (psychologists), or masters degrees (social workers or marriage and family therapists). In my opinion, the therapist’s degree or title is not as important as other factors. It is important to choose a licensed therapist or a therapist in training who is working under the direct supervision of a licensed therapist.

There are various ways to find referrals – from your insurance company, from friends or family, or from professional associations such as the American Psychological Association or the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy . The Psychology Today website also has a good therapist finder.

Give some thought as to whether the therapist’s age or gender matters to you. In addition, if you work and/or have childcare responsibilities, you might need a therapist who can see you on particular days or times.

By far the most important factor is how comfortable you feel with this therapist. Is she or he a compassionate listener? Do you feel that this person understands your feelings? Are the responses you receive kind and helpful? Pay attention to your intuition. It is natural to be nervous or upset when consulting a therapist, and you may not instantly feel relief, but you should feel that the therapist is an attentive listener, is kind, and has knowledge and skills that will be helpful to you. If you do not think that the therapist is a person you can trust, move on and try someone else. A short list of problems — therapists who are distracted (checking their email during a session, for instance), who interrupt the session to take phone calls, who make the session about them instead of about you, who are seductive, or who offer advice that seems off base to you.

It is a good idea to ask questions of a therapist before beginning your work together. For instance, you might ask what training and experience they’ve had related to treating posttraumatic stress and whether they are up to date on recent research about PTSD. You can also ask about their therapeutic orientation — for instance, do they focus on behavioral or cognitive coping skills or are they more insight-oriented?

Therapy can be expensive, although fees vary widely. If cost is a concern, talk with the therapist about whether he or she will reduce their hourly fee for you. Also, most cities and towns have mental health agencies that offer low fee counseling.

There is lots more helpful information on the web – for example, see this article in Psychology Today  or Web-MD.

 

Coping Strategies: Going Out After an Accident

A few days, weeks or months after our accidents, we must go out into the world again. We return to work, perhaps, or attend a social event or a family reunion. Maybe we just go out to the grocery store or the gym. Whatever the destination, that first post-accident foray into the world can be daunting, and some coping strategies might be useful.

You might be wondering who knows about the accident. Will people judge you or gossip behind your back? Might someone even attack you? Are they afraid to approach you? Or will they be intrusive, offering sympathy you don’t really want and asking questions you’d rather not answer?

That was my experience, anyway. I wanted to hide at home, but after a week or so I had to go out, and I was frightened.

If you feel the same way, there are simple steps you can take to prepare. First, ask a friend to accompany you and offer calm support while you run errands, attend appointments, etc. If you’re returning to work, contact a sympathetic co-worker ahead of time and ask him or her to check on you a few times during that first day back. Considering talking with your supervisor to discuss what would be most helpful to you. Second, plan modest expeditions before attempting to resume your usual schedule. For example, instead of to visit the grocery store, dry cleaner, pharmacy, and gym, perhaps try a simple trip to the grocery store first. Third, know that you don’t have to engage with people if you’re not ready or don’t feel comfortable. If someone asks you about your accident, you can respond with a simple statement such as, “Thank you for your concern. It’s very difficult, and I’m not ready to talk about it yet.” Fourth, remember to breathe — if you start to feel panicky or distressed, stop and take a few deep breaths.

What other coping strategies have worked for you? Write and let us know.

A special challenge for many is getting back in the car and driving again. That was especially difficult for me after a child darted in front of my car – When I tried to drive, I started to hallucinate people in the road and would slam on my brakes in traffic! If a pebble hit my windshield, I panicked. After a few months I gave up my car and relied on public transportation for almost two years. Many people need to drive, however, and giving up a car is not an option.

If you are having difficult driving, ask a friend or family member to keep you company in the car, remind you that you are a capable driver, and help you manage anxiety. When I started driving again, I signed up for a driving lesson and was reassured when the instructor reported that I was doing fine. Many people prefer to avoid driving by the scene of the accident – if that is not possible for you, I recommend bringing a supportive friend or relative along with you. You can also ask a counselor or psychotherapist for help – there are effective coping strategies for reducing this kind of situational fear and anxiety.

How have other people managed anxiety and distress about driving? Let’s compile a list of useful coping tips. Thank you!

 

Parent-child relationships after an accident

I have been pulled away from my day-to-day responsibilities in recent weeks in order to spend time with my mother, who died earlier this month. She was 89, frail, and very ready to “transition,” but I miss her.

In my family, my mother was the brightly shining sun at the center of our universe, and the rest of us were dull planets circling her for warmth and light, and trying not to get burned in the process. For years, my mother’s approval meant more to me than anything else. If she was pleased with me, any disappointments faded into insignificance. If she was angry with me, I felt sick with dread.

My car accident happened when I was 22 years old and just beginning to strive for independence from my parents. In the midst of trauma, grief and fear, I pulled away from my mother – avoiding her telephone calls, discouraging visits, and choosing not to respond to cards and notes. She was puzzled, hurt and, eventually, angry.

I have given a lot of thought to why I distanced myself from the person who loved me most. I wanted the accident to make me a stronger, better person, and I felt I could not achieve that goal if I allowed myself to rely on my mother. I wanted to rely on myself instead.

There were other reasons, less clear to me at the time. Although the accident was not my fault, I felt horribly ashamed that I had exposed my family to legal and financial risk as well as community censure. And despite sincere assurances of love and support, my mother kept the accident a secret from even her closest friends and advised me not to talk about it. Before the accident, we presented ourselves to the world as a charmed family – happy, attractive and successful. The accident represented a big crack in this façade.

My parents were full of helpful advice, most of which was absolutely correct. For instance, they recommended that I sell my car and generously offered to buy me another one, so I wouldn’t be reminded of the accident every time I drove. But I refused to accept their advice, and the upshot was that I stopped driving altogether for almost two years. What they didn’t realize was that making my own decisions was more important to me at that time in my life than making the “right” decisions. Their advice, however well-meaning, suggested to me that they didn’t trust me to make good decisions. And I desperately needed someone to say, “I trust you,” because I definitely did not trust myself.

Finally, I was aware that the accident upset my parents, especially my mother, tremendously. They felt devastated by the death of a young child and his family’s anguish. They were also very worried about my wellbeing. They tried to shield me from their sorrows and anxiety, and I tried to shield them from my own distress, but of course we knew better. It was easier, somehow, to promise them that I was fine and moving on with life. If I confessed to the hallucinations, flashbacks, grief, guilt, and terror I felt, I feared I would break down. And the weight of my parents’ feelings was simply more than I could bear.

I often hear from parents who write something along the lines of, “My son/daughter doesn’t talk about the accident. Is that a problem?”

The answer is “it depends.” If the son/daughter has a strong support system or a good therapist, perhaps they are receiving the help they need. If they are keeping their thoughts and feelings bottled up, I expect that there may come a time when they will want to receive some counseling. Pushing them, however, probably won’t help. The most important thing parents can do is convey their love and their readiness to listen and help, without judgment and while managing their own feelings.

 

 

Buried in Fear

I am honored to share with you some insights and beautiful words from Cheryl. This is a beautiful and touching account of forgiveness and love. I know readers will join me in thanking her for this post, which I have already re-read many times.

Buried in Fear
By Cheryl Higgins

The other day in the news was a story about a woman involved in a hit and run of a five year old boy. After she hit him she ran to a field, dug a hole, and buried herself.

My accident twelve years ago was not a hit and run but I knew exactly what it felt like to bury myself in a dark hole of fear and shame. I had made a mistake so immense that a life was wiped from this planet. Even though I was fully present for all that I had done and was responsible for I wanted to hide away from the light of the world. After the accident I wanted to run. Run from what I had done and the lives that I had changed forever. I could feel all of that energy pushing down on me and it was paralyzing. I started to feel as if the girl that died in the accident was around me and I was terrified that she would show up in my mirror. I was so afraid and ashamed for what I had done I could barely get through the day. I finally told my close friend that I wanted to see a psychic and find out what the girl in the accident thought of me. Going to a psyhic was not something that was normal for me but in desperation I opened my heart to answers anywhere I could.

In the back room of a metaphysical bookstore I sat at a table across from a man I didn’t know and looked down at a stack of cards spread before me and asked, “What does the girl in the accident think of me?” I pulled a card and looked at in disbelief. It was a picture of Mother Mary and the words Unconditional Love. I felt this great weight lifted off of me and cried tears of regret and sorrow and for feeling love that I did not think was possible.  Whether you believe I pulled that card from divine inspiration or it was by some random chance it changed me from that moment on.   I saw that no matter how big our mistakes we are never separate from Love.

After that I finally started to let the cracks from that deep hole of fear and shame break open. When the light of love shined through my heart I burst wide open in awe. I have learned that this world is full of more love then we could ever know. If you have done something so horrible that you feel undeserving of love please let yourself  crack open even a little.  If we talk to each other about what we have done we can feel the compassion of each others hearts. We are here. We will listen and show you the love that is all around. Crack open. Let your light shine into this world. And let the light of love shine into your own heart and break you open even more.