Once witnessed, the scars left on those who feel responsible for accidental death cannot be forgotten – Ingeborg van Teeseling
Last night, Four Corners featured a story about a ten-year-old boy finding a loaded gun in his father’s bedside table and unintentionally killing his friend with it. This morning, I woke up to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, explaining how a twenty-something man had committed suicide after surviving a car crash that killed his two mates. These events are unrelated, of course, but in a way they are horribly similar, as they scare the pants off me. According to American watchdog the Gun Violence Archive, there were 1,955 accidental shootings in the US in 2015, up from 1,603 the year before. 694 of those were children younger than 11 years old.
Imagine that! 1,955 people now have to live with the knowledge that they killed or seriously injured somebody, probably somebody they knew, most likely somebody they loved. Hideously, these are only figures for accidental shootings in one year, in one country. And while those figures speak volumes, they do not tell us anything about those who feel this kind of guilt.
When I was a journalist in Holland, I was often sent to interview people who had been confronted with death. Death, in and of itself, is not the worst thing to deal with. While those affected seek revenge, restitution or at the very least acknowledgement; it is in stark comparison to those who caused it. It is the feeling of responsibility that magnifies it. By ways of an example, I spoke to the parents of a small boy. One day their son had a play date. Nothing out of the ordinary. Only this time, they had left the door to the attic open. The children, curious as all children are, went upstairs, and the child that had come to stay fell out of an open window to his death. To say the parents were distraught is an understatement. When I interviewed them, six months later, they still had no idea how they would ever be able to live with themselves again. They were going through the motions, because they had children to care for, but there was no joy anymore, no future. They told me their soul was broken, and I could see that it was the truth.
Another interview was with a young woman, 24 years old, who had accidentally killed her mother. They were in a car together, she was driving, it was night, there was a cow on the road. The girl survived, her mother did not. It was not necessarily her fault, but it was her responsibility and she felt so guilty she had stopped eating. She was fasting herself to death, punishing herself for what she had done and could never undo.
Then there was the train driver, who had been at the receiving end of 11 suicides during his 20-year career. It had cost him his marriage, the relationship with his children and almost his sanity. When we spoke, he described the colour of the flesh of the dead, the hundreds of meters of carnage on the tracks, the grating sound a body makes at the moment of impact. At the end of the conversation he smiled and told me he was waiting. For what, I asked. For God to punish me, he said, because that was what he needed to look himself in the eye again. When I told him I thought he had been punished enough, he shook his head. ‘Never enough’, he said, ‘never enough’.