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.