A Letter to a Woman Whose Life I Accidentally Ended

A Guest Blog by Melissa Mannion

I am so honored to post this beautiful letter by one of our Accidental Impacts participants. I know it will touch our readers as much as it touched me. If you’d like to convey a message to Melissa about this blog, please contact [email protected], and we will make sure she receives the message. -Maryann

Dear Heather,

I have started this letter a hundred times “Dear Heather,” but that is as far as I ever could get. What is the best way to begin a letter to a woman whose life you accidentally ended? It’s been a year and I still have no idea what the answer is. Maybe it’s not a matter of what, but when. And maybe that’s okay.

It started out as homework from my therapist. She asked me, ”What would you say to Heather right now if you could talk to her?” Instant tears. I was overwhelmed with so much grief and sadness. It took me down a path I’m still wandering on today. What would I say to Heather if I had 5 minutes or even 5 hours to sit with her? What would I want her to know?

I’d want her to know that I know her name is Heather. I’d want her to know that I care very much about her and who she was. I’d want her to know that the day of our accident has changed me fundamentally forever. I’d want her to know that I think about her everyday and I will continue to for the rest of my life.

Heather was only 6 years older than me in January, 2021 when our paths crossed and I, a complete stranger, ended her life. It feels so unjust. Nobody deserves to die alone on a road. Nobody. But that is what happened to Heather because of our meeting on that dark, winter morning 13 months ago. I think I will always have nagging questions about what happened that day. Why didn’t I leave for work 10 minutes earlier or 5 minutes later? Why did I stop at a yellow light that I clearly could have made it through? Especially when on any other morning I likely would have gone through it without a second thought. Stopping at that light put me directly where Heather would be just a few moments later. I also wonder about what Heather was doing that morning. Had she run across that freeway on-ramp so many times in the past that she didn’t see it as dangerous, feeling a sense of invincibility as so many do? I know I’ve run across many roads many times and suffered no consequences. So many questions that I will never have the answer to, at least not on this side of eternity.

As a Christian, this has also been a struggle of faith. Some people think that it’s wrong that I question God about that day. They give me the customary answers, “God is in control” and “God has a reason.” I believe God is in control. But, also, I feel like I will never understand this, and why it had to happen this way. I will never understand what could come out of this horrible situation that would possibly be worth a world without Heather in it. But I want to ask those people who shame my doubt in Him, “What is the hardest thing you’ve ever been through?” I believe often those who can’t understand this may have not been through deep, life changing suffering. My relationship with God, much like any other relationship we experience, has been put to the hardest test. I’ve been angry and confused. I held a grudge, not just on my behalf but more so on Heather’s, that God allowed this to happen. But also I have faith. What began as a long period of me giving God the “silent treatment” has given way to a lot of ongoing painful conversations with Him. And, I truly believe that if God allowed this to happen to me and to Heather, His shoulders are broad enough to carry my ongoing questions, my doubt, my anger, and my grief. I’ve come to believe He even welcomes it.

Maybe one day I’ll get further than the greeting “Dear Heather,”. Maybe one day I will know the right way for the letter to begin. A way that doesn’t seem ridiculously formal. A way that expresses the full depth of my emotion and sorrow. But for now, “Dear Heather,” is where I’m at on this journey. The opening sentence seems a permanent barrier to the floodgate of thoughts and feelings I could and desire to share. Maybe it is something I will be able to complete–or properly begin–maybe not. Instead, maybe I will have to wait until I also leave this life to give Heather the most sincere hug, and with the most authentic tears tell her how very sorry I am that this happened to her. And then, as the Bible promises, we can then both turn to God, He will wipe away our tears, and give us both understanding. This is my faith.

Has anyone else written a letter to the victim in their accident? I’d appreciate hearing about it. Maybe it’ll help me pass the untraversable door of “Dear Heather,”.

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The Taboo Grief of the Accidental Killer

Note from Maryann: I am honored to share this moving essay by Lois Brown, who is a valued member of our community. The Taboo Grief of the Accidental Killer captures the isolation and stigma so many CADIs experience, and she proposes to counteract this by organizing a support group in her home city of Liverpool. We thank Lois for her keen insights, strong voice, and for reaching out to offer support.

Few people escape the sorrow of grief, and its causes are innumerable; the grief of those who have lost family members in terrorist attacks and other acts of deliberate violence; the grief of those whose loved ones have been killed in accidents; the grief of people who have lost children or siblings to illness, addiction, suicide. In our more enlightened 21st-century world, there are support groups for nearly all people who grieve. Yet there is one group who rarely receives recognition of their grief; those who have accidentally caused the death of another person. The key reason for this is simple; to have killed someone, even in an accident, is taboo. The perpetrator — for want of a better word — is responsible for the mechanics of the accident, despite benign intentions. Many are innocent of blame, and not legally culpable. Nonetheless, they often regard themselves as undeserving of forgiveness or support; they ask themselves how, indeed, could they possibly expect it — after all, the death was their fault.


Thirty-eight years ago, I had such an accident. An inexperienced driver, driving outside of England for the first time, I momentarily lost my bearings when a car overtook me from the left-hand lane, and I lost control of the wheel. I discovered later that the accident was considered unsurvivable; yet two of us walked away with only minor physical injuries. There was, however, an infant in the car, and she did not survive.


While I was not prosecuted for the accident, I nonetheless received a life sentence: the overwhelming grief of having been responsible for the death of a child. Intensifying my grief was the agonising suffering that I’d inadvertently caused to her family, and sadly, my broken friendship with them. Dogging me ever since is the constant sense that I don’t deserve life’s simple pleasures and mercies, although I would fight for these for anyone else. These anguishes have, in turn, been amplified by the isolation of not knowing any other survivors who have experienced similar ordeals. This isn’t because these accidents are rare; it is because that which tortures us is unspeakable. It is taboo for the “perpetrator” to acknowledge their continued pain, because to do so may be construed as imposing on the grief of innocent survivors. Similarly, people who could help often don’t because they mistakenly think they have to choose a “side” in such a tragedy. Worse still, they dismiss the perpetrator’s grief as self-pity. The result is social, psychological, emotional, and spiritual isolation.


For me, the element of isolation began to recede in April of this year, when I attended a Zoom meeting led from California by Maryann Gray, founder of Accidental Impacts, a community of people who have unintentionally killed another person. Twenty-seven people attended, mostly from the USA and Canada, but also from other parts of the world. We share a sorrow and regret that eclipses adequate words, and while the details of our stories vary, the impact that those events have had on us is strikingly similar. It was a comfort to be among people who needed no explanation for the depth of my grief and regret, or the reason for its continuance, because they, too, experience it.


Interviewed in the September 18th, 2017, issue of “The New Yorker,” Gray speaks eloquently of the trauma of having, in 1977, hit and killed a boy of eight who ran in front of her car. She, too, bore her suffering in isolation for years. Then, in 2003, an elderly man inadvertently killed 10 people and injured 70 others when he hit his car’s accelerator instead of the brake, careering into a busy farmers’ market in California. In response to the merciless public vilification that followed, Gray sent her own story to National Public Radio, expressing her compassion for the driver. NPR aired her account during rush hour and cautioned her to brace herself for the hate mail. None came. Instead, she received dozens of emails from people who had accidentally caused a death, all expressing gratitude for bringing to light the grief they suffer.


In the UK last year alone, there were 1,580 deaths due to road traffic accidents, and thousands more accidental deaths from other causes. In many of these deaths, another person will be held responsible; whether or not they were prosecuted, they are all paying a price.  Many accidental killers are lost to suicide, the obvious causes being feelings of guilt and shame. But another major stumbling block to recovery is the fact that their grief goes largely unacknowledged. Even though such tragedies can happen to anyone, the grief of the accidental killer is far more difficult to empathize with than the grief of a victim’s family. It is the elephant in the room, socially unseemly, and best not mentioned. Yet despite this discomfort, if there is to be genuine reconciliation within society, support for people who have accidentally killed is vital.


In “The New Yorker” article, Gray notes that in the book of Numbers, the Israelites were instructed to set aside six cities of refuge for people who had inadvertently killed another person, places where they would be safe from blood vengeance by the victim’s family. But these cities were not hiding places. The perpetrator first had to explain to the elders what had happened and ask for refuge. If accepted (the death had to be accidental), the elders provided them with a place to live within the city. I have read this several times over the years, but its relevance to me only became clear when I read Gray’s interview. I am overwhelmed with gratitude that thousands of years ago, plans were made specifically for the welfare of people like me, creating a place for us where we would be welcomed within a community, our circumstances and needs acknowledged. We would be fully accepted. We would not be expected to hide in shame.


Imagine if we, in our communities, treated accidental killers with empathy; providing a listening ear, a safe place to talk, a community. When someone is killed in an accident, everyone involved needs and deserves compassion, support, and community. To deny these provisions to the perpetrator is to deny them the mercy to which everyone is entitled.


If you have been accidentally responsible for the death of another person, and you are interested in considering joining a support group for people in the same situation, one will be starting in Liverpool as soon as COVID lockdown rules permit, and may also be initiated online. For further information, please email Lois Brown at [email protected] . All personal information will remain confidential.


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For new CADIs from our community

During our November fellowship meeting, we asked our 40+ participants to break into small groups and reflect on what was helpful to them in the early weeks following their accidents and what advice they would offer someone else in that position. The results are so full of wisdom and insight that I want to share them with our readers, so here they are.

Advice to new CADIs (people who caused accidental death or injury):

  • Seek support

    • Spend time with non-judgmental people who are understanding and caring
    • Get therapy/counseling
    • Allow yourself to accept support from friends and family
    • Find community with people who understand what you’re going through
    • Lean on others
    • Address substance abuse issues if needed
    • Caveat: People might not know how you feel because they haven’t been there
  • Avoid isolation

    • Don’t hide in a corner
    • Isolation can be a huge problem
    • You’re only as sick as your secrets
  • Practice mindfulness and/or spirituality and religion

    • Try to stay in the moment (avoid thinking about the past or future)
    • Take it hour by hour
    • Try meditation
    • Be spiritual
    • Use prayer
    • Let God, faith or religion lift you up
  • Keep in mind that this is a difficult process

    • Take time to grieve
    • Recognize there is a lot of pain and struggle
    • Remember that we can’t control everything
    • It’s a long process
  • Treat yourself with compassion

    • Look after yourself
    • Know that you will be able to forgive yourself. You will get there
    • Be patient with yourself
    • Don’t read what people are commenting (on social media)
    • Look for useful resources (books, etc.)
    • There’s not one way to get through this. Don’t let others tell you what to do. Find your own path
    • Do something with your feelings – channel them into positive action
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Walking into Another Year

Note from Maryann: I am so pleased to share Jennifer Eikenhorst’s lovely essay, “Walking Into Another Year.” She wrote this shortly before the anniversary of her accident. Jennifer tells me that she made the day meaningful and spiritual, including a hike in some beautiful woods near her home. Jennifer and I invite you to find her on Facebook or check out her podcast called Accidental Hope.  

I am walking into another year and I am not talking about The New Year.  Soon it will be another year since my accident.

Anniversaries are always a topic of interest and extremely personal among CADIs. Do we honor it? Do we stay in bed and pretend the day does not exist? If we do want some type of remembrance, then how?

It was told to me by way of a complete miracle (my neighbor of 2 years who was also a CADI and I never knew) that the first year was the hardest. He was right. I was subconsciously ticking off the days, weeks and months leading to October 4th.

When babies are born we celebrate the days, weeks and months in an enduring way. “He is 3 days old,” a proud mom might boast. “She is 7 weeks old this Tuesday.” We honor the days that pass, and soon we will count the months leading to the years. Another way birth and death become sacred, the way we count the time. I remember when hours felt like a week and sometimes a day passed and I was shocked. I counted the weeks and hated every Tuesday as a reminder that another week had gone by in this new reality.

Leading to the first anniversary I was filled up with more anxiety than I care to explain, I was expecting for some unknown event to happen. It was a haunting, the anticipation leading to the day life changed for so many people. We countdown the days that honor the most painful day of our lives only to add another number, knowing full well part of us remains forever in that moment. In some ways it will always feel shocking that the time has passed.

But it has. In just a few days I will honor 5 years from when I held the hand of a man I did not know in the middle of a dark country road. Half a decade ago, it’s hard to believe. And because I have now “met” so many fellow CADIs that I understand the milestones of 5 years, 10 years, 30+ years, there is a sliver of emotion that still feels as fresh as 6 months post-accident. I am grateful for the honest truth of this kind of hard. I chose to paint on my first anniversary a scene that I imagined what the man in my accident would have loved, a motorcycle ride into the sunset. I got my hands dirty and covered up splatters of tears on the canvas with warm fall tones of trees. In the past few years I have acted on a random act of kindness on this day. Another year I sprinkled wildflower seeds near the scene. I always light a candle in memory of David or any other CADI that shares their anniversary with me. It’s a simple gesture that stirs gratitude deep inside me as I watch the flame flicker and pray for the family of the victim.

But this year I am walking into the next year from my accident challenging myself to grow physically, emotionally and spiritually stronger. I follow an account on social media that was calling on followers to make a goal to reach 10k steps/day. I tried several times previously to make the count and came up short. I averaged 7k steps no matter what I did. However, this same fitness influencer put out an official 10KDay Challenge with prizes and accountability. As quick as my finger could swipe up I was ready to join, and then the details caught me off guard. It ended on the anniversary of my accident. For a split second I hesitated and thought to myself, “but I don’t know how I will feel that day.” I may want to be under the covers, crying, resting and doing my best to shut out the world. The last four years have been a different flavor of emotions. Every anniversary comes with a hefty dose of grace for those emotions and the hard truth that you are still here to experience time moving forward.

I learned this lesson once already that I can’t hide from the day and it’s ok to be grateful for breath in my lungs. And you, you are alive reading this rambling blog post! Though I hesitated to fill out the join-form and  began to weep as I filled it in, I knew. This is exactly what I needed and after a good cry I have this feeling deep down that the man from my accident that lost his life, I believe he nudged me to click submit. There was peace as I cried and smiled and said, “Ok, I am walking for me, and walking for those that can’t.”  I am walking into this next trip around the sun stronger doing things I never thought I could.

It might sound superficial “a walking challenge” but my goal has absolutely nothing to do with fitness and everything to do with celebrating accomplishing something that reminds me of the gift of life. In August I had a pretty rough battle with my health. Today was day 1 of the challenge and I did what I thought was impossible. I hit those 5 digits (10,143) on the odometer and fist pumped the last bit of sunset. What was the special umph to make it happen? I think the community (like this one with Accidental Impacts), knowing someone out there is rooting for me and I them. I’m putting the energy that typically fuels anxiety leading to October 4th into something positive for myself and others.

No matter where you are in this journey, each new day is an opportunity to walk in the freedom that your journey is not over. If you are still in that space where getting through the day feels impossible and you can’t fathom doing this still months from now, you aren’t alone! Take one step at a time, leap if you are able, a hop-skip-jump into the hope of each new day, week, and even year that passes. There are no rules in this other than what you choose for you. But please be kind and compassionate towards yourself.

With love,

If you do, how do you honor the anniversary? Share ideas in comments.

Here are some that I would like to do someday: Plant something, pay kindness forward with a meal or coffee, write a poem, volunteer where you feel passionate, challenge yourself, take a small trip to somewhere new, light a candle, visit the site and share your heart with the deceased.

If you want to connect:www.accidentalhope.com


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Supporting Yourself while Supporting a CADI

In my last post, I discussed how family members and close friends can support a CADI and help them cope after a serious accident. In this post, I focus on the importance of supporting yourself while supporting a CADI. As a friend or relative of a CADI, you experience your own stress and trauma. You grieve for the victim and his or her family. You also grieve for the toll this takes on the CADI. If you were at or near the scene of the fatality, you may have some of the post-traumatic symptoms we’ve described, or you might feel traumatized by the way in which you found out about the accident. As one CADI said, “This doesn’t just happen to you. It happens to the whole family.”

And there are all kinds of worries. Will the CADI ever recover from this? Will they be arrested or go to jail? How will this affect the family finances? Will the media coverage or social media chatter provoke retaliation? It is not unusual to feel angry as well. You know the CADI did not intend harm, but their actions caused tragedy, and the results are life changing. On top of that, supporting the CADI requires energy — taking on extra tasks, helping to coordinate or plan, and finding the strength to be with them in their pain and suffering.

Secondary traumatic stress is the desolation and anxiety that comes from hearing about the fatal accident and doing your best to support the CADI (or others involved). Secondary trauma can resemble symptoms of posttraumatic stress — emotional upset or feeling numb, difficulty concentrating, worrying, or feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. Your sleeping or eating may be disordered, or you might have physical symptoms like an upset stomach or back and neck pain.

These are all signs that you need to take care of yourself. Seek social support from friends or relatives and take some time away from the CADI to be by yourself or to do an activity you enjoy. Exercise, time in nature, creative expression, meditation, and self-compassion exercises may also be helpful. It is okay – actually it’s necessary — to have boundaries.

Some CADIs express a desire to be left alone, even when you reach out with love. Remember that withdrawal is a sign of guilt and shame. The urge to hide from others can be powerful. The CADI in your life may reach out to you in the weeks or months to come. Healing is a long-term process.

If your secondary trauma is interfering with your life, you might want to talk with a therapist, pastor, or counselor about your feelings and fears. Also keep in mind that, just as the CADI’s anguish affects you, your feelings and worries affect the CADI. By dealing with your anxiety and grief, you will help the CADI cope.

Those who care for CADIs are offering vitally important support. Even small gestures of acceptance, support, and caring can make a huge difference. Thank you so very much for reaching out.

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The Importance of Social Support for CADIs

Providing social support to a family member or friend who has unintentionally killed or seriously injured another person will help them cope and heal. Many CADIs fear that they will be shamed, rejected, and cast out of their communities and friendship circles. Simply reassuring them that you care is so important. In addition, even when the CADI is overwhelmed by trauma, life goes on — the kids need help with homework, the bills need to be paid, and so on. Your caring and help will make a big difference.

There are many different ways to show caring for the CADI in your life. First is emotional support. This means listening with love and acceptance while withholding judgement. It means offering a hug, a shoulder to cry on, or simply the comfort of your presence. It means assuring the CADI that you will not abandon them.

Practical social support is also important. What errands need to be run? What household tasks can you take care of? Would the CADI appreciate help dealing with the insurance company or finding a therapist? Can you screen social media for them? Your assistance can allow the CADI to focus on getting stabilized.

Another form of social support is companionship. Watch a silly movie or take a walk together. Offer to accompany them to the supermarket or gym. If he or she is afraid to drive after a car crash, offer to go with them when they first get back behind the wheel.

There’s also help with coordination and organization. Accidents tend to generate considerable paperwork and require various tasks, such as keeping track of medical expenses, dealing with a damaged car or equipment, working with an insurance company, pulling together information for an attorney, and so forth. This can be overwhelming, especially when each task carries an emotional charge. If you’re a good organizer, offer to help set up files or make copies of the paperwork. This can save time and stress.

To the greatest extent possible, allow the CADI in your life to be in charge of their own healing and to make their own decisions. One of the most painful elements of a trauma is the sense of helplessness it engenders, because we are confronted with the fact that we are not fully in control of ourselves or our lives. So balancing social support with respect for their capabilities is important.

If you believe the CADI is suicidal or at risk of hurting him or herself, however, it is time to intervene. You can contact the suicide prevention lifeline, bring the CADI to a local emergency room, or contact their therapist or doctor (or encourage the CADI to do so) for crisis intervention. If possible, stay with the CADI and offer your love and compassion.

It is so hard to see those we love suffer, but you can be with them in their suffering and show them how much you care — and that is huge.

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Am I a Killer and Other Questions

Jennifer Eikenhorst has kindly agreed to let me post this essay, which explores the provocative question, “Am I a killer?” and also considers some of the other big questions that many CADIs ask. Her insights and sensitivity offer us hope. In fact, Jennifer hosts a great podcast called Accidental Hope, which integrates the wisdom she has gained from the tragedy of becoming a CADI with her faith perspective – Please check it out. Comments to Jennifer about this post can be sent to [email protected], and we will forward them to her.

Am I a killer?

That’s a dramatic statement. Abrupt. Possibly triggering (please forgive, if so). But this question, am I a killer, plagued me tirelessly after my accident with fatality in 2016. And if I’m being honest many questions like this or worse left me in emotional pieces. I was not very kind to myself during that time.

Logically, the answer was no, the accident was not intended to harm, but yet I doubted logic. No longer trusting the logic part of my brain because it was shut down and silenced to the emotional overload I was experiencing. I questioned my entire being, past, present and future.

Have you experienced this kind of overload?

All the questions chanting and marching around in circles like protests throughout my neural pathways. The voices weren’t synchronous or in harmony but competing for answers.

Why did this happen?

Am I still a good person?

How do I recover?

Is it okay to recover?

The list is long of thoughts that taunted me, kept me awake, exhausted much of my energy and brain power. Perhaps you share some of these questions you asked during or after your trauma. Questions and self-reflection are normally healthy; it’s a natural process. Ever spent time with a toddler? That’s the exploring the world phase and everything is questioned. We are in a sense exploring our new world post-trauma. Do you remember coming of age when you suddenly questioned everything and argued with everyone? Also natural. As the brain develops we use questioning to learn and synthesize information. Some life-experiences are life-altering. Often I hear C.A.D.I.s refer to themselves before and after the experience. We are a new version of our previous self and with that sometimes there is also grief.

I think trauma produces similar processes to developmental stages. The question is, what to do with the questions we will never have a sound answer to? Dr. Kristin Neff, author and advocate of self-compassion, said this, “Painful feelings are, by their very nature, temporary. They will weaken over time as long as we don’t prolong or amplify them through resistance or avoidance. The only way to eventually free ourselves of debilitating pain, therefore, is to be with it as it is. The only way out is through.” In my journey, as I began to actively seek healing and normalcy these are my thoughts on what to do with all the logical, illogical, soul-crushing and sensible questions.

We make peace with not having an answer. We breathe in and breathe out, we relax our shoulders and loosen the grip of our clenched fists and release it to the “out of our control” bin in the brain. Perhaps time, little by little we will see glimpses of things that help with that peace.

We reframe our questions to give us agency, such as what now? How can we bring purpose from this pain we experienced? Who can we help with our shared experience? Could I be a compassionate ear for the next person? How can I show gratitude for the present strength gleaned from past hurt?

We carry on. We put one foot in front of the other stumbling at first, but at some point our wobbly legs become strong again, and some when we put in the work will be running in life despite the trauma. Not separate from it but carrying it as personal growth with great stride and humble endurance. Breathing easier once again.

I don’t know if you share similar questions to mine or your experience brought about a whole different set, but I think it’s important to write them down, avoid stuffing or ignoring. These voices will just whisper relentlessly or holler a little louder from the back of your mind if not acknowledged. Take them as they come, know that you are not alone or crazy. Seek a trusted friend or professional to help you sort them like weeds from the thought-garden.

Be kind to yourself in this process,

Resources I love:


Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess by Dr. Caroline Leaf


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Finding My Way: Transforming Trauma to Strength

I am pleased to present this guest blog by Todd. His story touches my heart. He offers a compelling description of how he transformed trauma and despair to strength, love, and compassion. Please join me in thanking him for his contribution. If you want to communicate with Todd, please send an email to [email protected] and write “For Todd” in the subject line.
Thank you,

One seemingly normal warm sunny spring day I was driving home from work, and without going into the details, I ran over a six-year-old boy with my car. I was 17 years old at the time and the boy lived next door to my parents’ house and was my friend’s little brother.

From that split second on for a few years I’d describe myself as numb, in shock. Besides the shock of the accident, I had to endure the police, a lawsuit, my name in the newspapers, and ridicule and cruelty including physical attacks from members of the boy’s family and the community. I was within a month of graduating high school, and once I went back to school I was verbally abused and ridiculed in every way you can think of.

My dad was at first furious at me that I did something wrong and caused him problems. He calmed down once he heard from witnesses what had happened, determined it wasn’t my fault, and said that we had insurance so I didn’t need to worry about it. He then never mentioned it again. My mother tried to get me therapy but at the time it didn’t work for me, because I simply said to the line of therapists, “Did you ever run someone over?” When they said no, I said bye. I had close to zero support. However, coincidentally my uncle who lived nearby had also run someone over a couple of years before. So my uncle was there for me as he understood.

In my accident, the little boy lived, against all odds and against all doctors’ predictions, after being given last rights on four different occasions. He did, however, spend almost two months in a coma, had over 30 broken bones, was on a ventilator, and had a feeding tube among all the other tubes, etc. He had several surgeries, including two brain surgeries. He spent six months in the hospital and four more years after that in physical and speech therapy. I visited him every single day in the hospital for those first six months, and afterwards when I could. He gradually learned to walk and talk again. But his brain never fully recovered – his brain is frozen in time, stuck at six years old.

That was 40 years ago. He is now 46 years old, and lives in a facility with other people with traumatic brain injuries and other disabilities. The last time I saw him was about seven years ago. The first thing he said to me was, “Hey do you remember when you ran me over with your car?” I’m now 58 years old and on one hand it seems like it happened a lifetime ago, and on the other it seems like it happened just yesterday.

I can’t claim to know exactly how it feels to be in some sort of an accident or other scenario that resulted in someone dying, but I think I can imagine that feeling as I came pretty close. And I live with the guilt of knowing the little boy I ran over was robbed of a “normal” life.

In the first few years after the accident, I just went day to day, sometimes hour to hour. I was briefly suicidal but decided against that as I couldn’t bear the thought of how my family would feel. After a while I just had a routine, go to school or work, visit the boy, go to sleep, repeat. I somehow went to college and graduated, with multiple court depositions thrown in there. I was known in the area as “that guy.” That guy who ran that kid over.

When I look back, I don’t really know how I did it, how I made it, I just did. I think it changed me, but I can’t be sure as I was only 17 at the time, so who would I have been otherwise? I don’t know. I do know I’m a very strong person, sometimes too strong. I had to be, to make it, physically and mentally, just to endure. I also have a great deal of empathy for people as everyone has their own problems to deal with. And most normal problems in life like a broken-down car or something like that are just minor annoyances to me as I have perspective as in – well nothing is as bad as what I went through at 17 years old. So I have the feeling I can get through anything, I can do anything.

About ten years after the accident, my future wife and I decided to move across the country. The accident and being “that guy” were part of but not the entire reason. So I started a new life, tried to escape the past, but of course you don’t fully escape. In my case I believe I made the right decision. It was a fresh start, and I’ve known people here for over 30 years who have no idea what I went through. I’ve told some and not told others. And I’m no longer “that guy.”

At some point in my marriage with two young children my wife and I started going to marriage counseling for unrelated reasons. But during the counseling my accident kept coming up over and over again. Eventually my wife stopped going and I went alone to the counselor who was a clinical psychologist, and all we ever talked about was my accident. I have to say it helped me immensely. It was about 20 years after the accident. Just talking to someone and getting it all out helped a lot. After a while I claimed myself “cured!”

Of course you’re never fully “cured.” But through the last 40 years of first being numb, then beating myself up with guilt and being consumed by that one split second of my life, I gradually changed and became happy. I went from thinking about that little boy every day, to thinking about him once a week, to once in a while. Certain things will trigger that memory like hearing his name, seeing kids playing in the street, people driving their cars fast and recklessly down residential streets, etc.

Life is long and full of amazing incredible things to do and see. As time went on I realized there is no need to dwell on one moment of a long long life filled with many many moments. Yes, I remember, and will never forget, and of course I feel badly about it, but I no longer walk around in a guilt-ridden daze. Life is random, shit happens. We both were in the wrong place at the wrong time. If one life is ruined, what is the point of ruining another life?

To me what got me through those early years was music, simply music. It was my escape. And over the years I discovered nature. Nature is my “church” as I’m not a religious person. My wife and children, hiking, biking, fishing, skiing, camping, playing guitar, and going to see live concerts, those things bring me happiness. It’s a long road, but day by day, step by step it slowly, gradually gets better. Yes, it happened, but a lot of things happen in life, good and bad. I try to focus on the good.

If you are going through something similar, please talk to someone, get help from a professional. It helped me immensely. If you think you can’t afford it, I simply say you can’t afford not to. There are also many cheaper options nowadays on the internet for counseling, etc. And consider attending the monthly accidentalimpacts.org monthly Zoom meetings. It helps considerably just to simply know you are not alone. I hope my story helps in some way and if you have any questions or comments let me know.

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Feedback from our Community

Accidental Impacts invited those on our mailing list to respond to an online survey; 49 responded, for a response rate of 12.8%. We appreciate the feedback from the user community. Overall we are on the right track (yay!), but our respondents offered some excellent suggestions for improvement. We also need to work on building awareness of our programs, services and resources. Major findings include:

  • Most respondents found Accidental Impacts through online searches.
  • Almost all respondents (90%) had visited the website, and almost half (45%) had commented to the site. Over one third (37%) had visited the Facebook page.
  • Respondents found the elements of Accidental Impacts they used to be helpful. Personal stories topped the list, with 78% of respondents rating them as “very helpful.” In contrast, only one quarter found the resources on the website to be “very helpful,” while the same number found the resources to be either not helpful or only somewhat helpful.
  • Almost half (43%) of respondents had attended at least one Fellowship meeting. Of those who had not attended, almost half indicated they did not know about them, and 30% indicated they were not scheduled at a time when they could attend. One quarter indicated that they “might” be interested but were unsure.
  • Comments indicate that respondents would like Accidental Impacts to facilitate more peer-to-peer communications and to help users find counselors or therapists.
  • 17 respondents indicated interest in volunteering with Accidental Impacts. The most popular option was peer mentoring, followed by writing for the website or Facebook page, and leading a Fellowship meeting or serving as a speaker.

The board will be discussing this feedback at our spring meeting. We are considering how to launch a peer mentoring opportunity, and how we can respond to suggestions for improvement as well as obstacles to participation in Fellowship or other programs. We will also be contacting the potential volunteers.

If you have feedback for Accidental Impacts, let us know! You can write to us directly at [email protected] Thank you.

Some Comments:
I’m so glad to know this group exists. I wish it were there when I had the accident. I think recovery would have been aided by knowing I wasn’t alone and there were other people who understand. I think more people want to be involved but are frightened.

I think stories of people who’ve found a new direction and meaning since it all happened [would be useful], who’ve moved forward. People need to see it can get better.

Maybe somehow have old timers for lack of a better description help out newcomers who recently had accidents.
Support on how to find a therapist with experience in Accidental Impacts and their repercussions [would be helpful].

The members of this group are some of the kindest people I have ever ‘met’. They are always offering words of hope.

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How to help someone who is struggling with the guilt of transmitting COVID

The Los Angeles Times published the op-ed below on December 31. I am pleased to share it with you here.

Los Angeles Times Opinion Section

By Maryann J. Gray

When someone unintentionally kills someone else, it’s usually because of a car crash. This year, COVID-19 could easily be the No. 1 cause of such deaths.

In the U.S., over 340,000 people have died from COVID since March. Comparatively, an estimated 28,000 people a year survive a car crash in which at least one person is killed — and not every survivor is considered an accidental killer.

The horror of transmitting COVID to another person isn’t as clear-cut as being behind the wheel during an automobile accident. You can’t be 100% certain you transmitted the virus that caused another human being to die, unless that person had absolutely no contact with anyone else in the world.

Regardless, those who live with the knowledge that they probably infected others with the virus may experience a toxic stew of guilt, sorrow, fear and defensiveness. I know this because many years ago I unintentionally killed a child who dashed into the road in front of my car. When I realized how few resources there were to help people manage the trauma of inadvertently killing or harming others, I decided to use my training as a social psychologist to study how to help those who have caused such tragedies.

Suspecting, or knowing, that you’ve transmitted COVID can be a sentence of unending misery, especially if it ended a life or caused a disability. Early in the pandemic a grieving son told me, “I killed my grandfather.” A woman who fears she transmitted the virus to her friends recently emailed to say, “How can I feel normal when I have caused so much suffering?”

Some people transmit COVID despite doing everything they can to protect those around them. Others are negligent or reckless. Most fall somewhere in the middle, taking risks that seemed reasonable at the time. For instance, some Thanksgiving travelers may have thought they were safe because they tested negative for the coronavirus before their trips, but they were in the earliest stage of infection or contracted COVID en route.

When we fail to meet the moral standards we hold for ourselves, a crisis of conscience that psychologists call “moral injury” can result. This is the psychological and spiritual distress resulting from perpetrating, witnessing or failing to prevent acts that violate our core moral beliefs. Writing about his anguish after a car crash that killed a motorcyclist, the Rev. David Peters said, “There was nowhere I could go to get away from the feeling that I was no longer good.”

Boston University researcher Brett Litz and colleagues have identified three categories of moral injury symptoms: self-injury, including suicidal thoughts and substance abuse; demoralization, such as a sense of worthlessness; and self-handicapping, including isolation and shutting down positive emotions.

This is in keeping with what I hear from people struggling with having given the virus to someone else. Many others will keep their feelings and thoughts to themselves because they feel ashamed and undeserving of support, or they are afraid of being blamed and ostracized.

In the midst of the pandemic, it may seem like it’s asking too much to extend compassion to those whose negligence, ignorance or error led to someone else’s illness, disability or death. We are more likely to shame them, often in the harshest terms, for their actions.

As for those who took all recommended precautions but were doubly unlucky to both catch and transmit COVID, we tell them there was nothing they could have done differently so they need to forgive themselves and move on. This is especially true for frontline and essential workers who often have no choice but to expose themselves, and then their families, to the virus.

Still, a person with moral injury often feels alone, even abandoned.

Guilt is appropriate when we harm someone. In most cases, guilt is a signal to take action — to make amends, apologize and seek to improve ourselves. But in severe cases of moral injury, the guilt can become disabling, interfering with their ability to love, work and relate to others. Without treatment, those afflicted are likely to live smaller lives. They have less to offer to their families, their coworkers and their communities, causing all of us lose out.

As the pandemic continues, more people are likely to experience moral injury after transmitting the disease. Society will need to help them overcome it.

My experience suggests three elements are critical to alleviating an injury to our moral conscience — accountability, compassion and community.

Accountability means acknowledging to ourselves, and possibly to others, that we harmed another even though we didn’t mean to. It means thinking about whether we need to make behavioral changes to protect others without indiscriminately heaping blame on ourselves. Part of accountability is acknowledging the limits of personal control. An accurate appraisal is the goal.

It’s not necessary or useful to excuse carelessness, and those who grieve for a loved one should not be expected to offer forgiveness (although some will). But just by showing compassion we can validate the humanity of the person who transmitted COVID and acknowledge the distress that is felt.

Community refers to working to make the world a better place. This can be community service or activism, or simply resolving to live with compassion and kindness. None of this makes up for causing another person’s death or illness. It does, however, honor those who have suffered or died. It also restores a sense of agency, self-respect and belonging.

Not everyone who transmits COVID will experience moral injury. Some will deny responsibility or have the resilience to cope effectively, and many will never know what role, if any, they played in spreading the virus.
Yet it is not unreasonable to expect that thousands of people will struggle with the guilt that comes from infecting another person. By acknowledging how much it hurts to hurt someone, we can help them heal.

– Maryann J. Gray is the founder of Accidental Impacts, an organization for those who have unintentionally killed or seriously injured other people.

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