Survivor's guilt after a fatal accident
Q. My son and one of his friends were in a horrible car accident last year. My son survived, but his friend did not. We were very close to his parents, but we haven’t known how to talk to them since the accident. How can I get past this and reach out to our friends?
A. Many parents have felt the terror of a phone call about an accident or hearing a diagnosis from a doctor. Whatever the source, there is a sense of distorted reality that can never be forgotten. You and your friends shared the horror of the accident. But your relief doesn’t require an equal measure of guilt; it’s appropriate to express the compassion that you obviously feel.
• Share a meal. What did you do together before the accident? If you went out to dinner or had each other over, then issue an invitation. Our society tends to avoid discussions of death, but bringing up memories of the friendship between your sons is meaningful. You are not going to be reminding them of the loss because they think of their son from the moment they wake up. Sharing your memories acknowledges the importance of his life. Let them know that you don’t have the words to describe what you would like to say, but you want to be there for them.
• Make a photo memory book. Ask your son to go through his digital pictures and look through photos of birthday parties, scouting events and other highlights that the boys celebrated together. Let your friends know that you have the book ready as a gift for them and see if they would like to share their pictures, as well.
• Include the parents in social events. Let your friends decide whether they want to participate in ongoing traditions. For example, if you sat side-by-side watching your boys play football, then they still may want to go to the games. Don’t exclude them because it seems too heartbreaking to you.
• Ask God’s assistance. Spend time asking God that you be able to recognize any way that you may bring comfort to your friends. “ … I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” (Exodus 4:12) The book Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope details how the Van Ryn and Cerak families learned that the identities of their daughters had been switched after a fatal car accident. Although Whitney Cerak’s mom struggled with her “happy ending,” the Van Ryns’ prayerful reaction helped ease the sense of survivor guilt.