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,
Jenn

Resources I love:

Self-Compassion

Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess by Dr. Caroline Leaf

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-sticky-mind/201907/unwanted-intrusive-thoughts

This entry was posted in and tagged . Bookmark the .

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,
Maryann

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.

This entry was posted in and tagged . Bookmark the .

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.

This entry was posted in and tagged . Bookmark the .

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.

This entry was posted in and tagged . Bookmark the .

New Developments at Accidental Impacts

Accidental Impacts is growing!

Please check out and “like” our new Facebook page. We will use Facebook to keep everyone informed about upcoming events, to post requests from media or researchers, and to provide other announcements. It also offers another pathway to the website for those seeking support.

In recent months, we have organized two fellowship meetings for CADIs on Zoom, both of which were well attended (about 20 people from across the US and parts of Europe) and well-received. Something powerful and healing occurs when we talk with people who have shared similar experiences.

We will continue offering these fellowship meetings so watch your email and Facebook for more information. If you are not receiving emails about these events, please contact me either through the website or at [email protected] so I can add you to the list. We also welcome your feedback on topics of interest or other events that would be helpful to you. Even if you’re anxious or scared, please consider joining us. We offer a safe space to deepen your understanding and to receive solace and support.

On our June 7 meeting, Reverend David W. Peters, author, theologian and fellow CADI, talked about moral injury as it applies to causing accidental injury or death and his journey back to healing his spiritual core. His remarks set the tone for a great discussion. You can read some of David’s work here and here.

We plan to continue offering these fellowship meetings so watch your email and the Facebook page for more information. If you are not receiving emails about these events, please contact me either through the website or at [email protected] so I can add you to the list. We also welcome your feedback on topics of interest or your suggestions for other events or programs that would be helpful to you.

I write this from my home in Santa Monica, California, where COVID-19 remains a significant concern. Wherever you are, I hope you are healthy and obtaining the support you need. Please consider the Accidental Impacts community to be part of your support system.

 

This entry was posted in and tagged . Bookmark the .

Coronavirus, CADIs, and Trauma

With the quick spread of the coronavirus, our world has changed so abruptly. I feel at various time confused, scared, sad, and angry. It’s been difficult to concentrate. I worry about those I love.

I also feel extremely grateful to those family and friends who check in with me regularly; to the health care workers who are nothing less than heroic; to those who are keeping vital services going despite the risks; and to my fellow dog-owners in the neighborhood who smile and wave from six feet away as we are out with our pooches. I should add that I also feel grateful to my dog, who makes me laugh many times every day.

You may have already figured out that the coronavirus presents CADIs with some special challenges. First, we have already learned the hard way that tragedy can strike out of nowhere. The Coronavirus is yet another reminder of this. As we once again are confronted with the fact that we have limited control over ourselves and our world, we may feel more anxious or frightened than usual.

In addition, unintentional killing has a moral component. In the aftermath of our accidents guilt and shame may consume us, and some of us worry that we are bad people despite decades of good deeds and good intentions. This concern with our moral worthiness may lead to heightened anxiety about the chances of inadvertently transmitting cornonavirus – might we once again unintentionally harm or even kill someone? This possibility scares me, so I am doing my very best to follow the advice about social distancing and hand-washing. I can’t eliminate the risk of transmitting coronavirus, but I can make good choices.

Third, people with moral injury or PTSD sometimes lose their sense of belonging and connection to others. Some CADIs withdraw from family or friends, either because they don’t feel deserving of support or because support is not available. While social distancing is a public health necessity at this time, the resulting isolation can re-stimulate or exacerbate feelings of loneliness and disconnection.

As one way of supporting yourself during this difficult time, I encourage you to consider how past trauma interacts with the trauma of the coronavirus. Therapy is available these days via telephone or internet if needed. Most of all, use your agency – even when the world feels out of control, we can follow the advice of public health professionals, take care of our nutrition and health, reach out to others to request or (even better) offer support, turn off the television or computer for some respite from the news, meditate and/or pray, and do those activities or tasks that make us feel better. For me, that includes writing this blog post and trying to refocus on the Accidental Impacts website and related work.

I hope these reflections are of some help. Also, remember you can share your thoughts about CADIs via comments to the website. You can also email me privately here, and I try to write back to everyone. It can take me a while though, so thank you in advance for your patience.

This entry was posted in and tagged . Bookmark the .

Trauma: A Guest Blog by Joel Gunderson

Trauma.

I’ve spent the better part of the past 17 years trying to define what “trauma” means and whether my situation qualified. I know, deep down, wedged between particle of doubt and shame, that I went through a trauma. What I have struggled with is locating the correct way to describe what type of trauma I befell.

On December 20, 2003, while driving home from a family dinner with my mom, I struck and killed a transient who has placed himself directly in my lane on a dark highway. The rain and lack of sight made our collision inevitable. At the time, my 18-year-old brain made the impact impossible to quantify. I felt the screams and the tears and the pain course through my body in the second and months that passed soon-thereafter, but only recently have I begun to unpack the ramifications of that night.

When I look at my three children, aged 7 and 3 (twins), I know that someday they’ll find themselves on a dark highway, driving through rain, with nothing but questions through the windshield. And it’s only now that it hits me:

I could have died, too.

I’m in the early stages of writing a book on my accident, but it’s so much deeper than just me. I want to explore the psychology of PTSD, specifically for folks in our shoes. Because oftentimes, when speaking with others who have taken a life, I find commonality in our pasts, of how we deal with the situation, and how we classify ourselves. And while every incident is different in nature and tone, those who are truly accidental carry the same grief.

We carry the same guilt and shame and feeling of inadequacy.

This is the first blog from me, and I want to be as involved as possible with everyone here as we go forward. What Maryann has started is a safe-haven for those of us who are lost. Those who feel alone in our situations. Those who believe that no one else could possibly understand the uniqueness of our emotions.

But we’re not. We’re all here for a reason, a terrible, unfortunate, unthinkable reason. But we’re here. And now it’s our mission to pull you through to the other side; to the world where you can be at peace with yourself and tour past.

Joel Gunderson

This entry was posted in and tagged . Bookmark the .

Should I contact the victim’s family?

One of the more frequent questions I get from those who have unintentionally killed or seriously injured someone is whether to contact the victim’s family.  My answer is, “Maybe.”

The impulse to apologize is powerful and a beautiful sign of humanity and caring. But in the immediate aftermath of an accident, many lawyers advise against contacting the victim’s family because words can be misinterpreted and become problematic. In addition, the family may not want to hear from you, and their preference should be respected.

On the other hand, I have heard from several people who lost a loved one in a car crash or another accident and cannot understand why the CADI did not reach out to them. They interpret the lack of communication as a lack of caring, which only adds to their hurt and anger. For example, a woman who sustained life threatening injuries in a car crash told me, “I needed to hear him apologize.”

If you want to reach out in the days or weeks following an accident, I recommend consulting an attorney and then working through a trusted third party, such as a member of the clergy, a social worker, or even a neighbor or relative who can ask the family if they are open to hearing from you. If so, there are advantages and disadvantages to various modalities, such as a visit, telephone call, or letter. These options should be discussed and considered in the context of the victim’s situation.

What about months or years later? Many people who have caused accidental death or injury still want to make contact with the victim’s family.

Before proceeding, I urge introspection. Are you hoping for forgiveness? Do you want the family to acknowledge that you, too, have suffered? If so, perhaps you are not ready for this. The family may not be ready to forgive you, and that is their choice to make.

I remember talking with my therapist about contacting the family of the child I ran over. He said, “How would you feel if they are not receptive to hearing from you?” When I realized I would be fairly devastated under such circumstances, I backed off until I felt capable of bearing whatever feelings or attitudes they might hold toward me.

If you can offer a statement of caring and compassion – and need or expect nothing in return – the time might be right. You can let the victim’s family know that you think of them and their loved one every day, that you know they have suffered tremendous grief, and that you wish them peace and solace. Regardless of their response, you will know that you spoke from your heart and that you did not impose your needs on them.

This entry was posted in and tagged . Bookmark the .

Accidental Impacts is growing

Accidental Impacts is growing! We are now a nonprofit foundation, which will enable us to reach more people and offer more services. Our board and volunteers aim to expand the website, develop new resources for those who have caused accidental death or injury (CADIs), and raise awareness about the needs and experiences of those who unintentionally kill or injure.

To our knowledge, Accidental Impacts is the first organization focused on the needs of those we call CADIs. Thousands of people visit this website every month for information, links, and resources. In addition to CADIs, Accidental Impacts is a helpful to therapists, clergy, social workers, and others who work with CADIs.

We have big plans, but we cannot succeed without your help. Won’t you please consider donating to Accidental Impacts? Your tax free contribution will allow us to extend our reach. Thank you in advance for helping us out.

We wish you a year of peace, compassion, and personal growth.

Sincerely,

Maryann J. Gray

The Reverend David Peters

Kimberly Rice

The Reverend Chris Yaw

This entry was posted in and tagged . Bookmark the .

Guest Post: One CADI’s reflections

Note:A CADI who found this site shared with me their experience and some hard-won lessons. It’s such an important and well-written message that I asked to post it here. The author graciously agreed but asked to remain anonymous.

Accidentally taking the life of another person is incomprehensible and seemingly without purpose.  Those of us who find ourselves in such a sad situation will forever be affected by the overwhelming feelings of sorrow, shame and self-imposed guilt.  Regardless of the circumstances of those who inadvertently kill, each of us will undoubtedly suffer.  I believe this is part of the human condition—enduring pain on behalf of another who is no longer with us.

Fifteen years ago, I caused the death of an 8-year-old child.  I was a young police officer responding to an emergency call and ran a red light.  In doing so, my vehicle collided with another.  The child was ejected from the vehicle and later died.  I have a vivid recollection of the child lying on the roadway at my feet–his mother accused me of killing her son.  This is, by far, the worst day of my life.

Over the years I have struggled to reconcile my own feelings of shame and sadness.  I often feel underserving of all the good life has to offer.  I am saddened when I see kids enjoying their lives and wonder if my victim was enjoying what I see in other kids his age.   I wonder if he saw me staring at him as he was lying on the roadway.  I wonder if he was in pain or if he was simply confused over what had just occurred.  I wish, more than anything, it didn’t happen.

It took me a decade and a half to even begin to understand what happened.  At the time of the collision, I was young and knew little about life.  The only thing I knew is what I wanted—to be a cop and help other people.  I wanted so badly to be the good guy and one who people are relieved to see.  I did the opposite on that day.  I am so very sorry for what I did, and I often feel as though I am a bad person.

The way each of us handles a tragic situation is unique.  Excluding self-harm, there is no right or wrong answer here—just what feels right.  I handled my experience by internalizing it and devoting myself to the profession I so badly wanted to be a part of.  I used my job as a distraction and in doing so I excelled.

I have since struggled with my own perceived hypocrisy of continuing forward in a career based on public service knowing the harm I have caused.  Nonetheless, I checked all the boxes in the achievement column and came out ahead.  Insofar as some have argued I should have been fired, I will be forever thankful that my career afforded me an outlet and distracted me from what happened.  I don’t know where I’d be today had I done something different.

I did, however, make a mistake.  It has finally occurred to me my experience cannot be minimized or disguised by a career. A career is temporary and, in the long run, is a means to an end.  Careers don’t sustain families, nor do they guarantee happiness.  At best, careers fulfill some sense of professional purpose and financial needs that are at the end of the day superficial and non-relevant in relation to what’s most important in life.

For those of you who have accidentally killed another person or are close to someone who has, I offer the following insight:

A vicious paradox introduces itself to those of us who have unintentionally left a fingerprint on someone else’s death.  This paradox—one that debates the merits of your actions with the tragic outcome–manifests itself in endless and brutal thought about purpose, good versus evil and self-condemnation.  This is, quite literally, a maddening experience that we as otherwise good people are not equipped to handle alone.

Inherently good people suffer when bad things happen.  They suffer even more when they are the cause.  And if the outcome of their actions results in injury or death to another, they could find themselves on the brink of self-destruction.  To feign your contentedness about your experience will only enhance it and further your agony.

It is essential we invest in the relationships we have with other people.  Whether you have a spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, dog—whatever—invest in those relationships.  Tell the people you love and care for how you feel.  Let them know how painful your experience is and don’t hold back.  It is in these relationships you will feel accepted and valued.

If you wait until the last minute—when the thoughts, nightmares, and loneliness are at their peak—it will become increasingly difficult to confide in others.  It is impossible for other people to understand the gravitas of your experience unless you have conditioned them to it over time.  This requires frequent and ongoing conversation about who you believe yourself to be, and how your experience has affected you and your outlook on life.

Life throws curve balls at us all the time.  We get sick, injured and suffer emotional and physical harm.  There is one thing we can count on in the midst of life’s unfortunate events—the relationships we have with family and friends.  These relationships are what matter most and assign purpose to tragedy.  From terminal illnesses to life changing experiences, when we know other people are truly attuned to our needs we can persevere and live our best lives.

For those who have a loved one who accidentally killed, remember to be kind to them and listen.  Be their friend and encourage them to talk about their feelings.  Your loved one may not completely understand what happened to them, but they will be thankful for your genuine concern and desire to help them process their feelings and ultimately feel better.

For those who have accidentally killed–I am very sorry.  I understand your pain and suffering and hope you can find a way to move forward and heal.  Whatever you do, don’t forget to involve other people in your journey.  It is in the wisdom and company of those closest to you that you will find relief.  Without them, your self-imposed punishment will lead you to a dark and lonely place–for both you and them.

Admittedly, it has taken me years to even consider these things.  It’s been too hard for me to confide in those closest to me, but I realize now I should have.  My hope is that my story provides you with some degree of comfort and reassurance of what is most important in the midst of immense tragedy.

I am thankful for this community-Accidental Impacts-as a resource for those of us who will forever be wounded by accidentally causing the death of another.  I am privileged to have had the opportunity to contribute to this discussion.

Anonymous

This entry was posted in and tagged . Bookmark the .