By Dr. Gloria Horsley, an internationally known grief expert and author. Gloria is the founder of the Open to Hope foundation.
Having a loved one killed by a careless or drunk driver brings acres of sadness and anger, often unrecognized especially by those who have yet to experience a personal loss. When my son, Scott, was killed by a careless driver I knew that people felt uncomfortable with what to say, but I also desperately needed their presence as friends and family. Oftentimes, following a traumatic event, loved ones do not know what to say and sometimes, disappear. The old saying, “actions speak louder than words” is very true when there is a death. To offer better support for those grieving a loved one, here are some ways to help:
- Follow cues of how to speak of a victim’s loved one; say their name out loud.
- It is okay to be silent, to admit that you do not know what to say. Do not feel like you need to fill every moment with talking; your companionship is enough.
- Do not minimize the loss, or begin any sentence with “at least…” “At least you knew him for a little while,” or “At least he didn’t suffer.”
- Call just to check or send an invitation to lunch; Offer to come over, your presence is a gift.
- Share memories, stories and anecdotes about fun times; It brings joy to know that other people remember a loved one.
- Remember anniversaries and birthdays and that a loved one is not forgotten; A simple text, “Thinking of you today,” can mean so much.
- Do not disappear. Often family and friends are very present in the first weeks, but then evaporate as their lives return to normal.
- Rather than asking “What can I do?” reach out and make concrete gestures; drop off groceries, mow the lawn, etc. In the fog of grief, those grieving may not know they need help but some desperately do.
- Do not invalidate the feelings of those grieving by comparing losses.
- Don’t let your fear of saying the wrong thing keep you away.
If you are worried that something you want to say will be hurtful, err on the side of compassionate silence rather than risk causing further harm to the bereaved. Regardless what words you choose, remind the bereaved that you love them, that you remember and miss their loved one, and that they are not alone on this journey.
When a loved one is killed in a traumatic event such as a substance impaired driving crash, the emotional impact of the event is intense and overwhelming for those left behind. Many survivors may question why they survived when others did not. This is commonly known as survivor guilt, and many victims and survivors of substance impaired driving crashes experience this.
Survivor guilt occurs when an individual feels he or she should not continue to live or go on in the event of another’s death. It is a normal part of grieving, particularly when the death is sudden and traumatic.
When someone experiences survivor guilt, they often try to make sense out of a senseless situation. This endless search for meaning leads to many questions, among them “Why did my loved one die, but not me?” These and other questions are quite common and are characteristic of survivor guilt.
While survivor guilt is a normal part of grieving for some, if after a period of time the guilt affects you in ways that are preventing you from moving forward in your mourning, it is time to seek help. Addressing survivor guilt means learning to live with it successfully. The scar of the crash will never go away and there will be times – such as the anniversary of the death, or the crash date – that are going to bring up a lot of feelings.
If you or someone you know is experiencing survivor guilt, here are some tips to help down the path towards healing:
- Acknowledge and accept your feelings; it is okay to be happy about surviving the crash
- Be patient as your feelings evolve over time; there is no time limit on grief
- What you are experiencing is completely normal and part of grieving
- All of your feelings are an important part of the grieving process and should not be suppressed
- Celebrating your own life does not in any way diminish your sorrow and grief over those who were lost
- Talk about how you feel with a peer or other victims and survivors who have a similar experience
- You are not alone in your feelings
- Recognize that while you survived the crash and others did not, that fact may always remain a mystery
- No one can answer the ultimate question “Why?”, so try not to spend too much time seeking an answer to the unanswerable
- Look to find a purpose in your life and meaning to what you do as a result of having survived
- Remember the good times with your loved one
- Find ways to keep the memory alive of those who were killed; this can be done on a small scale by creating a memory book, or by donating to or participating in larger memorial events
- Do not let feelings of guilt keep you from responding to your own needs
- Do not punish yourself
- If feelings of guilt are overwhelming, seek the help of a professional grief counselor
It is possible for victims and survivors experiencing survivor guilt to enjoy life again without the continued guilt of surviving. It’s important that they understand that doing so does not diminish the tragedy that has occurred or the fact that they would do whatever they could to turn back time and change what happened.
By Kelli Donlen
Three days after turning 15, Zachary Gonzalez was killed by a drugged driver while riding his bike with friends. The driver was found to have valium and cocaine in his system and had five cocaine pipes in his vehicle that all tested positive. His only concern following the crash was getting his “oxys” (OxyContin) out of his car.
Kelli Donlen, Zachary’s aunt and legal guardian, was notified of the crash by the police and told Zachary was killed on scene. They were not allowed to go to the site of the crash and struggled because they were never able to confirm for themselves that it was indeed Zachary. Kelli said she wanted to believe it was a mistake if she didn’t see her nephew for herself. It was Zachary’s friend who confirmed for her that it was indeed Zachary.
Shortly after, Kelli learned that the cause of the crash was placed on Zachary because he and his friends were riding their bikes on a non-pedestrian road. The impaired driver was charged with a DUI and possession of drug paraphernalia. He was sentenced from one to six months in jail and was released on probation after only serving one month. Since his release, he has since been arrested for being drunk in someone else’s car and plead to Disorderly Practice; however, it was not a violation of his parole.
Kelli and her husband, who is the brother to Zachary’s mother, obtained custody of him at the age of 9. Kelli shared Zachary’s father was killed by a substance impaired driver when Zachary was three years old. When Zachary was 9 years old, his mother passed away from leukemia and since that time, Kelli described Zachary as quiet and keeping to himself, trying to make sense of all his losses. Shortly before turning 15, he was beginning to come out of his shell and enjoying life again. For his 15th birthday the family took a trip to Disney World and Kelli said they had a wonderful time. They returned home on Saturday evening and it was the next day, Sunday, January 19, 2014 that Zachary was killed.
The tears and heartache still have not gone away for Kelli, they never will. She struggles with the fact that the man who killed Zachary never should have been driving. She struggles with never having the chance to say goodbye. She does her best to remember all the good times with Zachary but finds herself always thinking of the “firsts” that Zachary will never experience such as prom, graduation, college, driving, marriage and having children. She tries to stay busy and loves talking about Zachary with others. Zachary was active on the wrestling team at his school and the family founded The Zachary Gonzalez Scholarship Program in his honor. Every year they will give out two, $1000 scholarships to students on the wrestling team. They gave out their first two scholarships this past April and plan to do so for as long as they can. The family also participated in their first WALK Like MADD event on September 19th in Philadelphia. Their team, Team Zach, had over 30 members and raised over $1000. Kelli is also working with Representative John Galloway on House Bill #1076 in Zach’s honor that asks for heavier charges in substance impaired crashes when a death of injury occurs. Kelli said she will never stop advocating for stiffer laws and honoring Zachary’s life by telling others about him.
In honor of our 35th anniversary today, we are pleased to share with you our special 35th Anniversary Edition of MADDvocate.
In this issue, you’ll find compassionate and uplifting articles, including MADD Volunteers, Healing Hearts by Helping Others, the story of how three women turned their family tragedy into a passion to prevent drunk driving, Honoring Loved Ones, about new ways to honor victims and survivors, and much more.
This special edition of MADDvocate also includes an interactive timeline for MADD’s 35th Anniversary, as well as a update on MADD’s four mission prongs, some of the key highlights for each, and how they work together to create a future of No More Victims™.
This month we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the MADD Victim Help Line—a 24 hour phone line for victims and survivors of drunk and drugged driving, as well as underage drinking. While the Help Line serves thousands of people each year, we know that there are many more victims and survivors that need help. That’s why this year, MADD added a service to compliment the call-in Victim Help Line: a live chat feature that can be found on the madd.org website.
Through the live chat box, victims and survivors can chat in real time with a MADD Victim Advocate. If for some reason the advocate is unavailable, the victim or survivor will be prompted to email a Victim Advocate who will respond to their inquiry.
Many victim and survivors that contact us through the live chat box aren’t aware that MADD provides free victim services. So through this online feature we are able to connect them with a local MADD Victim Advocate who will provide ongoing support.
In just the few months that the online chat feature has been live, we’ve received positive feedback from victims and survivors about their experience:
- “I am glad that I took this step to get information that can help my niece and it was great having someone there at the other end to help me with a quick response.”
- “Great service.”
- “It felt nice to hear somebody from MADD say that nobody should have been allowed to drive that night. She was right about that!! Very nice and compassionate woman.”
- “Thank you, I had excellent information. Keep it up!!!”
- “I want to thank MADD for providing this service. I needed somebody to talk to and had nobody till I found this website… I have always supported MADD and asked others to, also. You all are great! MARCH ON MADD!!!”
MADD Victim Services is excited by the response we’ve had to this new format and we hope to continue to find additional ways to reach and serve victims and survivors of drunk and drugged driving crashes as well as underage drinking.
If you are a victim or survivor in need of support, please call our Help Line at 877.MADD.HELP or chat with us online now on the MADD homepage, madd.org.