Last week a reader — let’s call him Dave — told me he accidentally killed someone. Dave was driving his car and hit a 72-year old man riding a bicycle. Dave did his best to get help, but the man died anyway. The accident wasn’t Dave’s fault. The man on the bicycle was drunk.
Dave feels terrible about this. He thinks about how the accident might have been avoided if he’d left a little sooner or later, took a different route, or made any minor tweak to his schedule that day. Other people told Dave, “Everything’s gonna be alright,” but he didn’t find consolation in that.
I asked Dave if he’d like me to write about this publicly, and he said he’d appreciate that. He said he’d already found the article Dealing With Tragedy and Loss helpful, but this is a rather special case as there can be feelings of responsibility and guilt involved. Dave mentioned this man was someone’s father and perhaps someone’s grandfather.
While I can’t pretend to know all that Dave’s been going through (I’ve never experienced anything like this personally), I’ll do my best to offer up some ideas for recovering from such a situation. The original tragedy and loss article addressed the point of view that would coincide with the deceased man’s family, and they certainly have my compassion. Although it may seem less severe by comparison because Dave didn’t know the man, this is a major event in Dave’s life as well.
After a tragedy or loss, your initial reaction is unconscious and instinctive. There isn’t much you can do about that except to ride it out. But the passage of time will soon reduce the intensity of those emotions, and that’s when you regain enough consciousness to choose your ongoing reaction.
Now you have a choice. You’re free to decide what this event means to you and how it will affect you moving forward. You can do nothing and leave the whole thing up to your subconscious, or you can consciously work towards closure.
Your first decision is whether to accept the event or to resist it. When you accept what happened, you remain centered in the present, and your awareness expands. When you resist it, you focus on the past or future, and your awareness contracts.
Your initial unconscious reaction will most likely fall on the resistance side. This is what Dave experienced when he thought about the ways he might have prevented the accident. Doing this will cause your awareness to sink to levels such as grief, guilt, and shame.
Acceptance simply means, “OK, this thing happened. It’s real.” When you can acknowledge the reality of what transpired, you raise your awareness back into the domain of conscious choice.
Find the meaning
The next decision is to determine the meaning behind the event. What exactly happened? What does it all mean?
One of the best ways to do this is to look at the situation from multiple perspectives. Here are some examples:
- Zoom in – I just watched a man die.
- Zoom out - Over 150,000 people die on this planet every day.
- Downplay the impact – The man was 72 years old and drunk, so he probably didn’t have much longer to live anyway.
- Magnify the impact – This man’s family will really miss him. He might have lived another 20 years.
- Downplay the responsibility - If the man hadn’t been drinking, he might still be alive.
- Magnify the responsibility – If only I’d driven a different route, he might still be alive.
Some perspectives are certainly more empowering than others, but I’m not suggesting you focus on only one perspective that makes you feel marginally better and ignore the rest. I suggest considering the situation from every angle you can think of. A broader perspective will help you find meaning in the event.
The real meaning behind the event is the long-term effect it has on you. That’s all you can control. If there’s to be any greater value that comes from a tragedy, it will come from its impact on you. The potential value lies in how this event changes you as a person. And the core of that change is that your consciousness will either expand or contract.
Here are some potential meanings that can be gleaned from this event:
- Wake-up call – This is a powerful reminder that my physical life will end someday. It’s time for me to start living the life I was meant to live.
- Call to honor – I will honor this man’s existence by living the best life I can.
- Responsibility – Even though this was an accident, I need to make sure his family is OK.
- Fate - It was this man’s time to go. There’s no way I’m responsible.
- Anger – If this man had been sober, he wouldn’t have died. I hate him for putting me in this position. He deserved to die for being so stupid.
- Resolve – That was a dangerous intersection. I’m going to make sure the city fixes it, so this kind of thing never happens again.
- Tragedy – This man didn’t have to die. Life can be very cruel sometimes.
- Reassessment – I need to take some time to think about my spiritual beliefs. I’d like to think this man went on to a better afterlife, but right now I don’t know what to believe.
- Fear - We’re all just victims of random chance. This scares me that I’m going to die soon too.
There are no right or wrong answers here. There are only empowering and disempowering choices. Making such choices is all part of the human experience.
Once you give meaning to the event, you gain some closure. Depending on the meaning you assign, you may be forever changed. At any time, however, you’re free to reopen the case. As you grow more conscious and your understanding of reality changes, you’ll undoubtedly reinterpret major events from your life and assign them new meanings.
As a request I would ask that you join me in taking a moment to intend:
- For the man who died - a smooth and happy transition
- For the man’s family – recovery from their loss
- For Dave - finding an empowering meaning in this event