We all react differently to trauma. As our bodies and brains attempt to adjust to the shock of causing unintentional harm, many people experience troubling symptoms, such as intrusive images, strong negative emotions, difficulty concentrating, sleep problems, and physical problems. When these symptoms occur in the first few weeks after your accident, they are called “acute stress.” If they last longer than one month, it is called “posttraumatic stress” and psychotherapy is recommended.
After unintentionally killing or injuring someone, many people experience the upsetting feelings and thoughts known as moral injury – the distress that comes from failing to live up to our moral standards or expectations. Even though we did not intend harm, we no longer see ourselves as good people deserving of respect, support, happiness, or acceptance. We live in guilt and shame. Moral injury can pull us away from others, including those who love and care about us.
Keep in mind that you will not always feel this way. You can learn to manage your symptoms so that they will subside. We encourage you to ask for help from professionals, family, and friends. Therapy can be especially helpful in treating posttraumatic stress. Definitely seek help if you are thinking about suicide or if distress related to your accident interferes with your day to day functioning. In addition, you can take care of yourself by avoiding substance abuse, eating healthful meals, drinking plenty of water, exercising, and treating yourself kindly and gently.
Guilt is appropriate when we harm someone, but it can become disabling. Consider how you can use your guilt to fuel action that makes the world a better place. Some call it making amends. We cannot make up for taking a life, but we can commit to lives of virtue moving forward. Remember that this accident, regardless of blame and fault, does not define you. We are so much more than our mistakes.