The Taboo Grief of the Accidental Killer

Note from Maryann: I am honored to share this moving essay by Lois Brown, who was a valued member of our community Sadly, Lois has passed away since this was published. Her words continue to touch many readers. 

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.

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