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.