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When news broke that Alec Baldwin shot and killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins with a prop gun on a movie set, many were quick to litigate Baldwin’s level of responsibility and search for someone to blame. Just weeks later, at least eight people, some still children, were killed at rapper Travis Scott’s Astroworld festival in Houston, Texas, and still more were hospitalized due to injuries sustained in the festival’s crowd surge. These high-profile incidents are shocking from an outsider perspective, but they leave an even bigger mark on the living people involved with—and potentially culpable for—such fatalities.
People involved in accidental killings don’t wake up knowing that they’re going to play a role in ending someone else’s life, yet psychologist Maryann Gray estimates this happens to around 30,000 people per year in the U.S. alone, with “hundreds of thousands” more causing other people grievous, life-altering injuries. “Car crashes, unintentional shootings, medical mistakes—not just the mistakes that happen in healthcare settings, but you’re taking care of Dad at home and you give him the wrong medicine or you miss a sign that he's declining—workplace accidents, accidents in recreational settings, accidental drownings of children. This is far more common than you think,” Gray told VICE.So, how do you recover from causing irrevocable harm in a way that you never saw coming? Gray, who was involved in the death of an 8-year-old child who ran in front of her car in 1977, founded support group Accidental Impacts decades later to help people parse out that exact question. What do people experience after they accidentally kill or injure another person? I generally refer to two categories of distress. The first one would be acute and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a well-established psychiatric diagnosis consisting of a constellation of emotional, cognitive, and even physical symptoms that really disrupt everyday life. The other component that so many people experience as a result of unintentional killing is what's increasingly described in the literature as “moral injury.”
Moral injury is this sense of despair that we experience when our behavior fails to live up to our moral standards that we hold for ourselves. The result is tremendous guilt and shame and grief, and also a loss of self respect, a tendency to withdraw from others. It’s not uncommon to experience suicidal desires, addiction issues, and so forth.PTSD and moral injury overlap, but they’re different. PTSD is fear-based: it comes from the shock of sudden violence and the sudden realization that the world can be so capricious, and so random, and we have such limited control. It's very helpful to go through daily life, we all do, as if we have a high degree of control—but these traumas break through that illusion. Moral injury, in contrast to PTSD, is guilt-based. The emphasis is not on the shock, or the suddenness, or even the violence, it's on the implications of the incident for what we think about ourselves. What else is unique about this kind of trauma?So often, therapists will try to help their clients not feel guilty, because they're so used to neurotic guilt. But we should feel guilty when we've unintentionally harmed someone, even if it's not our fault. It’s not just understandable, but even expected and appropriate to the situation.Many traumas don’t have this element of self-blame or ambiguity. But whatever the circumstances [in an accidental killing], people do tend to blame themselves, even recognizing that they were not negligent or reckless—still, their actions, nonetheless, had horrible, horrible consequences. For example, I was driving a car that hit and killed a child; the child ran in front of my car, there was nothing I could have done, and if I hadn't hit him, somebody else would have. But I still blame myself for that, because I did it. I was driving that car.
I think many of the people who unintentionally kill or injure go underground. They don't talk about it very much. They don't necessarily feel they deserve support, or they’re afraid of retaliation, especially if there's media coverage. They get trolled on social media, there’s pressure on the DA to file charges. There’s also that tendency to withdraw in the face of moral injury. I think it's easy to say to oneself, I'm not the victim here, I'm the perpetrator. So how dare I ask for support, I've already done enough and I’ll take whatever comes my way, because I deserve it. So I think there's been this little unconscious collusion, for lack of a better word, between individuals who keep their experience to themselves. And then there’s broader society, which is terrified at the idea of random, unintended violence—with reason! It's horrible. Why would someone who has been involved in an unintentional killing need a group like Accidental Impacts? To my knowledge, Accidental Impacts is the only organization in the world that focuses on the psychological needs of people who have unintentionally killed or seriously injured someone. I always want to start out by emphasizing that unintentional killers are not some new class of victim—we are not the victim. The victim is the person who died, or was injured, and their grieving friends and family. It's really important to emphasize that I in no way want to equate the death of a beautiful young woman [like Halyna Hutchins] and the grief of her friends and family with the grief and suffering of the unintentional killer.
Having said that, the fact that there's such a lack of support for people in this category is noteworthy, because the level of distress, the kind of trauma, is very severe. People who unintentionally kill or injure others, really, truly are anguished and often for a lifetime. That's the dark side. The more hopeful side is that there are ways to find peace and self-acceptance. So, how does one begin to repair these kinds of injuries in the wake of an accidental killing? I really encourage people who have unintentionally killed or injured someone to get into counseling or psychotherapy as quickly as possible so that they could get some intervention and some help. The disabling aspects of trauma have implications for one's work, one's family, one's enjoyment, fulfillment, ability to be productive, it really affects us across the board. There's no real bright side to it until one is able to find some measure of growth or transcendence. Then, there's a pretty complicated process of sorting out what meaning we're going to make of this: What does it mean about me as a person? What does it mean about the world? What do I choose to believe? What am I accountable for? And how do I accept responsibility for what I should accept responsibility for? That brings me to the most important component, I think, about transcending trauma, and that’s about honoring our victims. I love that language, actually—making careful and mindful decisions about how we can honor the victims, and everyone who has suffered as a result of this tragedy. And there's a zillion ways to do that. The obvious one, of course, is through service, and many people choose that. There's also creative expression—Alec Baldwin is an artist, and he might choose to use his talents in some way, directly or indirectly. But someone could also deepen spirituality, or commit themselves to family in new ways. They could simply make the commitment to become more compassionate and kind—to be mindful about bringing that into the world in honor of the victim. In other words, let's honor the fragility and preciousness of life by doing something to make the world a better place. That in no way makes up for unintentionally killing somebody. There is no evening of the scales here. But we can regain a sense of agency and effectiveness in the world. We can realize that we can make a positive difference. Despite all the capriciousness and lack of control, we can regain a sense of belonging to a community. Just doing something to make the world a better place satisfies that need for moral repair. What’s the goal of working through guilt and fear in the aftermath of an accidental killing?A lot of times people talk about self-forgiveness, and there’s nothing wrong with that language if it resonates for you. But it doesn’t sit well with me personally, because forgiveness implies a single act. Say I accidentally spill my coffee on your desk. I say, ‘Oh, I'm really sorry.’ And you say, ‘That's OK.’ I'm forgiven, and even if I feel badly about it, eventually I say, ‘OK, I forgive myself, I just was having a hard morning,’ and move on. For me, I’ll never be able to forgive myself for what I did [in 1977]. But I can treat myself with compassion. So self-compassion has a lot more resonance for me than self-forgiveness. We can't undo the horror, but we don't have to let it define us and we don't have to increase the toll that these accidents take by living smaller, more constrained lives, or endlessly punishing ourselves—which does nothing for the world.