Parental Grief & Adaptation Following the Death of a Child by an Impaired Driver
By
Sheryl M. Kindarachuk

Dedication

To all of the victims of impaired drivers and their families, and to my parents, with much appreciation for their unconditional love and perpetual belief in me.
 
Acknowledgments

The author wishes to express warmest gratitude to the parents who participated in this study, without whom this research would not have been possible.   May their strength and courage be an inspiration to those who may also find themselves contending with such a devastating loss.

Introduction

The loss of a child appears to be the most stressful of all human loss experiences, and perhaps the most tragic.  The rarity, unnaturalness and untimeliness of a child's death frequently leaves parents ill-prepared for dealing with the inevitable tremendous grief.   Mothers in particular appear to experience higher levels of grief and greater difficulty coping with the death of their child.  Incompatible grieving styles and/or discordant coping patterns often contribute to disruptions within the couple's marital relationship.  Both partners to experience a grief that is never completely resolved as well as a reduction in overall life satisfaction following the death of their child.

It is particularly traumatic for parents when the death of a child is sudden and unanticipated, whether it be accidental or homicidal.  While no person is generally to blame in the case where a child has died in an true accident, a specified individual is frequently at fault in a homicide.  Although the killer is often appropriately punished by the courts, such is rarely the case where an impaired driver has killed a child.

The inability to prepare psychologically for acute, unexpected loss poses particular difficulties in the grief of these parents.  Especially for parents whose child was killed in a motor vehicle collision, intense grieving persists despite months and even years having elapsed.  Although car crashes are a relatively common cause of death among the young, when alcohol has been a contributing factor in the crash, some have been inclined to call it murder.

For families of impaired driving victims, grieving is intensified when the death is sudden, violent, and perceived as senseless.   Moreover, the difficult grieving cycle is often compounded by frustration with a criminal justice system that apparently continues to regard impaired driving fatalities as accidents rather than as crimes.

After the loss of a child, pain and suffering permeate virtually every aspect of parental experience during the first year.  Later on, these emotions are often unexpectedly re-activated by special days, remembrances, photographs, songs, and movies. All of these are capable of producing intense feelings of extreme, debilitating pain despite years having elapsed since the death.

Burning anger toward the careless, lethal actions of the one responsible for the loss of an innocent life is also harbored many years later, and is compounded by the injustice of inappropriate punishments for what most parents perceive as murder.

Yet the memory of the beloved child remains in the minds of all parents, and thoughts of the child are treasured and often recalled on a daily basis.

The stories in this book were told to me by thirteen Alberta parents - three men and ten women.  Among these thirteen parents, ten children had died.   The parents ranged in age from 41 to 63.   The age of the child at time of death varied from 3 to 24 years.   The amount of time that had elapsed since the children's deaths ranged from 15 months to 18 years.

Shock

Numbness, shock, and confusion were experienced by nearly all of the parents.  In most intense grief situations, such reactions frequently appear during the immediate phase of grief and often serve as temporary protection from the full realization of the enormous loss soon to be faced.    These parents, too, tended to perceive themselves as "zombies" or as if "in a fog," unable to think, eat, feel, sleep, or act.  While parents expressed an inability to believe the reality of the death, most did not deny the fact as the following mother recalled:

It was a terrible shock the way it happened.  I don't remember getting dressed.  I remember being in the car and going over [to the police station] and just praying, 'let it be someone else'--hoping, hoping it was a mistake.  And yet you know it's not a mistake but you're praying that maybe it will be a mistake.

Shock also led to immobilization in which some parents were unable to function or participate in decision-making:

 I didn't even know where I was.  They say people were here and I don't remember them being here.  I remember sitting on the chesterfield and just not being able to focus on anybody.

Most parents experienced an overall emotional dullness and relatively vague recollections during this time as another mother recalled:

 I can remember being on the LRT and feeling like I couldn't breathe and I had to get off.  The walls were just closing in on me.  Or I just had to get out of there--like claustrophobia.  Sitting in the classroom and everything, there would be a booming--it seemed like a hollow room.  Deep pain wasn't for I'd say three days [after the crash].

The shock, numbness, and sense of disbelief tended to disappear after the first few days and rarely persisted beyond a week or so.  However, many parents continued to feel vulnerable and helpless.

Despair

Feelings of sadness or despair were often so severe that the hurt felt by parents was primarily referred to as pain.  This was described by one mother as "a very deep pain; very deep, very empty, very hollow," and for another, synonymous with the "terrible agony" of a broken heart.  Another mother responded with the term "devastated" to describe her sorrow.  One mother indicated that her pain was associated with missing her child:

 My heart hurt . . . I just felt like I was in terrible pain all the time.  I was so sad . . . my arms felt empty.  I wanted to hold her and she wasn't there to be held . . .  and there were so many things that would start it up again too, especially if I was out.

Although the intensity of such feelings eventually subsided, painful periods of acute, piercing grief were indeed common.  Such unexpected attacks were reported by virtually all parents, and were, as the following mother describes, quite immobilizing:

I would be going along the day and for a couple of hours not think about her.  All of a sudden, the pain, the physical pain would hit me and I would burst into tears and sometimes even drop to my knees on the floor . . . it was physical pain and very overwhelming.

Some parents reported that these attacks of intense pain generally came in waves or often occurred in cycles, thereby requiring considerable effort in maintaining an ability to function, as one father observed while at work:

 I'd be good for sometimes for a whole week or something like that . . . I'd go along probably for maybe four or five days and never even think about it.  Things would roll right along, it would pass by me, and everything all of a sudden, it would seem one day would be a real downer.  I would have to work exceptionally hard to keep my concentration.

Fortunately, many claimed that eventually the periods of intense pain became farther and farther apart, or as one mother noted, "the times just got longer between the times I'd feel terrible."    One father explained his experience in the following manner: For the first month, every two hours or so it was on your mind.  If it wasn't on your mind it would flash by every two hours or so, no matter what you were doing and gradually that time space got greater and greater and greater.
 
Despite a reduction in both the intensity and frequency of such feelings of despair, parents indicated various "triggers" which tended to re-activate painful feelings and contribute to subsequent adjustment difficulties.  As one of PAID's booklets states,  "The simplest things: a scene in a movie, a song, geese flying south in the fall, a child's dress in a store window - will trigger sadness".   Special events that frequently caused pain included holidays, particularly the first Christmas following the child's death.  As one mother recalled:

Christmas was very difficult.  It was just so gloomy . . . we went through it . . . we really tried to enjoy it and at times it wasn't terrible.  We had a nice dinner and the kids had a good time opening their presents . . . but it was difficult.

Upon looking back, another mother noted:

Maybe the first Christmas, if that was to happen again, I would not be at home.  To me that was too difficult. You need someplace different so the [child's] absence is not so intense.

Birthdays and death anniversaries were also problematic for parents, although the former were generally reported as more difficult than the latter:

The first couple of years . . . the anniversary was a real hard time for me and I spent some time out at the cemetery . . . but the last couple of years the day of her death has had less of an impact on me and her birthday has had more of an impact.  Her birthday is a very difficult time.

While many parents often reminisced about the child's past or unseen future during these times, such thoughts frequently evoked considerable anguish and distress, as one mother recalled of her recent difficulty with what would have been her daughter's 16th birthday:  .
 
. . I handled it very badly . . . I allowed myself to think about ___________; about the day she was born and when she was little and the day she died and how much I missed her and I fell apart.  It hadn't been like that last year.  It was sad but not that bad.  She would have been 16 this year and maybe that had something to do with it.  It's a milestone and so much older than when she was [age] . . . a young woman . . . I continue to see some of her friends from time to time and they're all mature . . . they have boyfriends and they're driving and none of them are little kids anymore.  And that's what ___________ would have been.

Indeed, years later, intense feelings of despair were often reported as another mother indicated:

I find her birthday still bad.  I keep thinking back to the day she was born . . . and every year I think of the day before. At about ten thirty, I'd think the contractions started.  I almost relive the day . . . I find her birthday more painful than the anniversary of the crash.

In contrast to the former mother, the following mother indicated how she handles this special occasion: ". . . I think about it and go through it and then have a good cry.  That's it."

Television shows, movies and/or songs were also cited as eliciting painful thoughts and feelings and due to their vast prevalence in everyday living, were often a source of sorrow.  One father recalled:

I was driving down the road and all of a sudden the tears start running down my eyes because I think of something or something is said on the radio or I drive by his grave.

One mother found seeing young children difficult:

It bothered me . . . when I saw little children, the toddlers.  Toddlers really got to me because I think I had such a clear picture of __________ when she was at that age.

Although few parents were bothered by the child's death certificate, the mother above added that:
 
. . . any official form where you had to talk about how many children you have now, I found very painful . . . one of the questions [on the last census] was 'How many children do you have?' and I saw that question and I just tensed . . . any form where I could not acknowledge ___________ bothered me.

While all of the parents kept remembrances of their child, certain objects were selected as particularly significant and saved.  These included photographs, specific articles of clothing (e.g.. the child's jacket), favorite toys and dolls, jewelry, books, written compositions, artwork, awards and trophies.  Such items frequently evoked feelings of discomfort, however. As one mother commented, "It's comforting and it's painful.  I don't want to let go.  I don't want to put them back.  It's a weird feeling."
 
Consequently, many parents indicated that they did not look at such articles very often:

Sad, painful at first.  Afterwards it's a type of comfort to be able to touch this stuff and reflect then put it away.  Yet I've only done it a couple of times.

Such items served as a painful reminder of their children, "their presence, their personalities, their company, the memories that we would have had" and "what they had ahead for them" that was "wasted." For some, a sense of failure in their parental role ensued, as one mother explained:

I remember thinking mothers are supposed to take care of their kids and I wasn't . . . if I had taken better care of her this wouldn't have happened.

She also expressed subsequent anxiety in caring for their remaining children and often feared for their safety:

I remember I worried . . . I didn't want to drive.  I didn't want them to go out of the house. Every time they went I'd be terrified till they got back home again.  And that neither one of them drank, neither one of them got in a car with someone who had been drinking.

Most of the parents  experienced depression, the most disastrous form of despair which one mother described as "wanting to curl up into a little ball" and another claimed was because "just so much joy is taken from your life." Five of the subjects subsequently entertained thoughts of suicide as an escape from the unbearable pain, as the following mother admitted:

A number of times I wished for death.  I'm too chicken to take my own life, but there are times when an actual physical pain like somebody is squeezing the living breath out of you that I never would have imagined.  I would hope that God would squeeze that last breath out and I would give up right there.

Another mother also expressed thoughts of suicide as well as a desire to trade her life for her daughter's that was so short-lived:

I think there were times when I said I'd like to be with her.  I often wish that it was me instead of her because I'd lived so much longer than she did and seen so many more things . . . in the beginning I used to think I'd certainly be better off dead because I wouldn't be suffering this much.

While suicidal urges were generally momentary retreats from the unbearable pain of loss, despair was a considerably more long-lasting, continuous emotional state.  Though the sense of despair gradually lessened in intensity and frequency, numerous triggers often provoked a resurgence of the "old" pain despite years having gone by.  Consequently, parents were frequently left "scarred for life."

Loss of Control

Most of the parents experienced an inability to control overt emotional expressions.  The most common expression reported (by all parents) was crying:

My eyes would weep.  I wouldn't be sobbing, but I just couldn't stop the tears from coming.  And they would just come all the time! I'd be talking to somebody and my face would be wet and my eyes would be just pouring tears, although I wasn't sobbing.

However, such reactions were generally physiological in nature.  While the vast majority of these "unemotional" grief responses simply happened without any apparent stimulation, some were triggered by such emotions as anger.  One mother also admitted to kicking furniture and throwing things around at times.  In any event, the frequency of such uncontrollable outbursts eventually diminished as time advanced and the recovery process progressed.

Anger and Hostility

High intensities of anger and hostility were exhibited by most of the parents.  Indicative of an individual's level of irritation, anger, and feelings of injustice, these emotions were directed towards numerous persons or even objects.  Although anger is a common response to loss, fervent anger to the point of resentment or even anger often occurred as parents sought to place blame for their imposed affliction.

Profound feelings of rage were directed primarily at the impaired driver, although chronic frustration with the criminal justice system was also prevalent, and served to further intensify parental hostility.  Attempts to avenge the loved one's death via the court system were frequently met with little success, and loss of faith and resultant bitterness often ensued.
 
Survivors of the crash in which the child perished often evoked intense feelings of anger (e.g.. "I was really angry at his girlfriend because she survived") and for the following mother, persisted several years later in the form of eventual resentment:
 I still resent her friend that was in the vehicle that survived.  And I tried to avoid her, and I shouldn't because it wasn't her fault, but I still resent her.

Another mother expressed resentment towards other mothers in addition to her daughter's peers:

I used to feel resentful for a long time . . . seeing mothers and daughters together.  I used to go to church and I'd see Mrs. ____________ and her daughter and I would sit there and I would say, 'that's so unfair, how come you've got yours and I don't have mine!' And her friends, when I'd see them, oh! I'd feel really resentful! I thought that was awful that they should be around enjoying themselves and __________ was gone.

Such visualizations of other surviving children and intact families served as particularly painful reminders of the loss of future hopes, dreams, and expectations for the deceased child, with anger often fueled as a result of the parents' inability to change their devastating reality.
 
However, feelings of profound anger and hostility were expressed primarily towards the impaired driver who was viewed as the sole cause of the child's untimely death and the source of their tremendous suffering.  Burning anger toward the offender resulted in a literal wish for the death of this individual by the following mother:

I still absolutely hate the man and I'd be happier if he was dead.  And that took me a while to realize . . . people would say, 'well, what would make you happy?' and I would say, 'I don't know.' But now I know.  If this man dropped dead I'd be happy.

One mother commented that her immense anger necessitated adjustment to the fact that she "hated" another human being and thus an irrevocable change in personality occurred:

Six years later I really have anger in me.  I hate [the offender] and I've had to deal with the person I hate.  And I'm not usually a hateful person.  So I had to deal with accepting that I hated somebody.  I resent the fact that he's gone on with his life.  He'll still finish his education, get married, have children or whatever way he's going in his life.  He gets to go on and my child is finished.  I resent that and I always will.

Only one parent claimed that her ability to forgive the impaired driver who killed her daughter was necessary to the successful resolution of her anger:

I think the faith helps you to be able to forgive him after a while and you have to be able to do that before you can to on.  It was tough, very tough, but after I did it I could put it behind me and I really noticed a difference because I didn't have to deal with that anymore.

However, anger and resultant bitterness was also expressed by many parents toward the handling of impaired driving, particularly by the judicial system which was described as a "rude awakening" and "a failure." Many felt that such cases are simply not treated properly by the courts.  One father revealed that:

The whole court system is a game.  For example, the defense lawyer decided we would have judge and jury.  The day that court was going to be had he sees which judge it is so he decides, (because he knows the judicial system), it would be better to have judge only and not the jury.  The jury people had been already paid and they were there and they were told to go home.  Ridiculous.  They played games.

He also observed that "Everything was sticking up for the drunk driver.  Nobody to stick up for [my son]." Another parent pointed to the fact that:

We can't sue this guy because there's no survivors, meaning if there would have been a child or something like this we could sue him.  And so the law says she's only worth $3,000.  That's all you can collect from your insurance.  Not that the money part--don't get me wrong--but it's just that the first four years of her life we spent $3,000 on glasses alone never mind anything else.  I mean nothing ever repays you for raising a child, you know, but it's the unfairness of the law.

Many parents expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of appropriate financial compensation for their child which served to further aggravate feelings of injustice.  Moreover, grievances associated with the media reporting of the case were also common:

There were lots of things that I argued about, but it was the way the newspaper reported it.  I believe the headline said something like 'Two Young People Killed in Head-On Crash' and it made me so mad because the other guy was driving down the wrong side of the divided highway! And I know they can't say everything but they could have totally changed the context of the headline.

Recurrent Thoughts

Most of the parents described spending a great deal of time thinking about the deceased child in the first year.   Especially during the early weeks or months, such thoughts completely preoccupied these parents, often eliciting feelings of sadness and despair as well as anger.   Later, these thoughts were generally momentary and eventually became of the "unemotional type."   As compensation, perhaps, parents also enjoyed pleasant, wistful recollections of the child as he or she was or would have been were often remembered.

However, many parents recalled particularly disturbing intrusive thoughts of the circumstances surrounding the child's death and were often concerned with the extent of suffering associated with the death, haunted by the memory of the child as he or she appeared at death.  Consequently, difficulty concentrating was relatively common among many respondents, particularly for those who returned to work shortly after, as one father explained:

That's what I found the hardest--when I went back to work--was to concentrate.  But I knew that I had to be doing something.  If I could be working all the time, I would forget.

While many things reminded parents of the child, thoughts were often triggered by the child's same-age peers, as one recently bereaved mother commented:

I still 24 hours a day think of her.  What she would have been doing in school, especially when I see one of her friends.  You hear about a teenager doing this or a sixteen-year-old doing that.  And I think to myself, well, __________ would have done it this way or [she] would have done it that way.  I often stop and wonder what she'd look like now.

Although few parents reported dreaming about their child, many wished they could have viewed their child in a dream, as one mother revealed:

I used to wish all the time that I would dream about her.  I really wanted to dream about her.  I still figure I'd be grateful if I could dream about her.  I felt so bereft all the time that I didn't dream about her.

She also reported (as did five other respondents) eventually feeling her child's presence, which was revealed as quite comforting:

It was a big relief to me, actually, when I first started feeling her around . . . and I didn't for a long time . . . and I felt very bereft that I didn't have her presence, but I did at some point realize that I was feeling her around me . . . I feel __________ with me all the time.  She encourages me and loves me.

Preoccupation with thoughts about the circumstances surrounding the child's death itself were also common but as one father explained, quite unsettling:

How he rode that motorcycle.  The police report said he did everything properly.  He applied the brakes at the right time; he laid the bike down properly.

Similarly, his wife also recalled experiencing such disturbing, intrusive thoughts:
 
The moment of death . . . I've read that thing over and over and over again, the whole instant of the accident.  Just visualizing the accident and going through that . . . the whole nightmare . . . that was what kept flashing first of all.  That was wonderful when that quit.

Another mother reported a preoccupation with the events leading up to the crash that claimed the life of her daughter which interfered with her initial ability to function:

I kept thinking of what must have happened that day.  What __________ and __________ must have done from the moment they woke up and what [the impaired driver] must have done when he got up.  I just ran it like a movie--and I couldn't stop it.
Many parents recalled "very vivid" and traumatic memories of their child's death, which served as a painful reminder of the violence involved:

I went to the police station and picked up her purse and it was awful, all splattered with blood; the things inside were smashed.  You'll never forget that.

Another mother described her trauma in preparing her daughter's body for the funeral:

She looked awful . . . __________ and I spent nearly four hours working on her beautiful long hair--as we combed and brushed it, it came out in clumps.  I held my baby in my arms while __________ worked on her.  Her makeup took the longest.  Her face was black and blue, and the more we tried to cover the bruises, the worse it looked.  We had to mold in her eyes with makeup because she had given up her eyes.

While nearly all parents recalled thinking obsessively about the horrific or gruesome aspects of the death, most parents reported eventually having fewer such thoughts and being able to focus on the positive, happy memories of their child, particularly the "good things" about the child:

In the beginning, __________ was perfect . . . I didn't remember the times she kicked over curfew or phoned at twelve and said, 'do I have to be home by twelve, can't I stay later?' and obviously not gonna make it home by twelve . . . I didn't remember any of that.  I remembered only the good things.

While initially remembering only the positive aspects about the child, many parents reported later being able to find humor in the "bad things" as another mother indicated:

I remember the happy times . . . we talk about some of the bad times . . . her sicknesses . . . and she got herself into a couple of jams . . . like she landed up in jail and we had to bail her out and pay her fines. But I can look on that as a funny incident in her life . . . there's some sad memories . . . but we have to look at the happy times, at least I feel, to keep our sanity.

However, most parents generally remembered their children "as they were" age-wise at the time of death:

I remember her voice and I remember her smile and I remember different images . . . I have a strong memory of her sitting on that chair in my room.  We were both sitting in the chair and she was telling me about school problems.  I remember . . . words that she has said and the expression on her face and I remember the last few days of her life.

All stressed the extreme importance of each memory, treasuring every one of them.  The mother above added that, "I dread getting Alzheimer's or something like that because . . . if I had that I might forget that I had her."

While two parents expressed thoughts of changing their place of residence as a result of "too many memories," only one moved elsewhere because of overly painful memories.  Few parents expressed a desire to "forget it all" and many did not feel that they could forget, often claiming as the following mother did that, "Forgetting it all would mean forgetting her and that would almost be a denial that she ever existed and she ever lived and was important."

Virtually every parent eventually experienced a need to share their thoughts and feelings about their tragedy with others.  Some felt a "really great" need to talk about their child and in effect, keep his or her memory alive, as the following mother revealed:

I was surprised.  Because people would come and they would be scared to say anything.  And I really needed to talk about __________ to everybody; to remember her.
Others did not experience an overwhelmingly great need to discuss their loss, but shared their feelings when asked, as this mother reported:

It's not a compulsion.  It was only if it came up . . . if people asked, then I would tell the truth.  They would listen a bit, I'd talk a bit and then it was fine and I could carry on.

Guilt

More than half of the parents felt responsible somehow for the death, or felt guilty for having survived the deceased child.   Parents also felt guilt about their relationship with the child at the time of death as well as from past performance in the parental role,  especially  in terms of what was not done for the child while he or she was alive.  Guilt from not spending enough time with the child while he or she was alive was a common response:

. . . I had guilt feelings about not visiting her as much as I should have.  And why didn't I get her a big present for the last Christmas she was here. . . and we didn't have as much money when she was growing up as we did when the other two children were young, so they got more than she ever did and I never felt guilty about it when she was alive because we often talked about it.  But when she was gone, it made me feel guilty about it.

Having been a "bad" parent at times was also commonly associated with guilty feelings and, as another mother reported, emphasized the guilt that often occurred as a result of perceived ineffectiveness in past performance in the parental role:

I remember she didn't want to have afternoon naps--this was maybe four or five months before.  And yet I always made her lie down.  And I think 'oh if I would have spent that time with her instead of making her lie down.' All these kinds of things are the things you think of then.  You feel guilty.

While such feelings were generally short-lived, guilt continued to cause distress for some parents as the following mother noted of her regret in supporting her son's interest in music:

I think if I hadn't supported [him] and he hadn't gone to [music school], he never would have been going to see that girl and he wouldn't have been where he was.

The irrational aspect of these guilt feelings, so common during the initial period of mourning, was also expressed by a father:
 I felt guilty because I bought a little part for the car that he needed and I thought that, well, if I hadn't bought it that it [the crash] wouldn't have happened.

Although many parents eventually recognized the irrationality of their guilt feelings, others continued to view themselves as partially responsible for the child's death.  Many experienced difficulty resuming normal activity and enjoying themselves, often experiencing guilt when having fun:

I often felt very guilty when I found myself laughing at something and having a good time.  It's a hard thing to explain.  I didn't have an opportunity to trade my life for hers, to save her with my life, but I often wondered if I would have, because after the first few months I think I was glad that I was alive; I enjoyed life and just after a year or two, I started to look forward to the future.  But I'd stop myself and wonder why I was laughing so hard after such a horrible thing had happened.
One mother reported feeling guilty when attempting to take pleasure in the sexual aspect of her intimate relationship with her husband:
 
I remember the first time that my husband wanted to make love . . . it didn't happen for weeks and weeks and weeks . . . I felt so guilty . . . I think it was the first time since she'd been killed that I felt any kind of happy feelings and I felt so guilty for it.  I said, 'why should I be enjoying something and she's not?' . . . that was a tough one.

In most cases, the passage of time enabled parents to identify the causes of their guilt as well as to recognize the irrational components of such thoughts, and most parents eventually learned to forgive themselves, realizing that their guilt was unjustified, and the circumstances of the death beyond their control.

Illness

Half of the parents experienced fairly high levels of physical distress.  Current medical research has found that intense grief can indeed affect the bereaved's bodily system.  While these parents were generally free of serious illness, complaints included difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, headaches (and in one instance, migraines), heart palpitations, minor gastrointestinal problems such as  diarrhea,  and aggravations of pre-existing ailments such as asthma.  Physical exhaustion, experienced primarily after crying, and reduced vigor often characteristic of depression were frequent, as one mother stated:

Like, before I was lifting over a hundred pounds; now I'm lucky if I can lift the coffee pot.  The emotional strength is totally gone.  Like to do stuff that I would normally do like once a month move the fridge and stove and the couch out and vacuum and clean . . . just forget it.

Many parents expressed a decreased desire to perform previously enjoyable activities as the following mother indicated:

I used to do a lot of exercises before __________ died and I didn't do anything after that.  I didn't do the gardening which I always did quite well, and I didn't do the everyday cleaning.  I didn't even think about cleaning the house.

One mother recalled extreme skin sensitivity, which "hurt like there were sores under it" and described her cardiovascular trouble as follows:

My heart would start racing.  It was like I couldn't breathe.  Sometimes I would have real difficulty breathing.  It was like a football was there.  I was trying to get past this huge big lump and I couldn't swallow and then I'd find that's when my heart would start because I felt like I was smothering.

While a few parents did admit to using tranquilizers, and in one case, alcohol, to assist with sleep, others reported little difficulty sleeping, including this mother who recalled:

I had no trouble sleeping.  I could fall asleep very, very easily.  I'd just go to bed and fall asleep.  And I loved going to sleep.  I loved it.  I loved being able to close my eyes and go to sleep because while I was asleep it wasn't hurting.

She also claimed an overall absence of physical ailments:

It was amazing how healthy I was.  I didn't get any colds, I didn't have any backaches--and I do have a bad back.  I didn't have headaches, I didn't have any lines on my face . . . but I could see when I looked at myself that I looked, if anything, better than I used to.  I felt like hell emotionally, but it wasn't translated physically.

Thus, some parents experienced few physical complaints or none at all, whereas others suffered from a variety of ailments and often required temporary medical assistance for the alleviation of such symptoms.

Social Isolation

Most of the parents found themselves withdrawing from social contacts and responsibilities.    As the loss of the child was often perceived as a type of emptiness, bereaved parents were often left with a sense of deprivation or desolation, frequently resulting in loneliness and feelings of isolation.  While parents often required the presence of others to join them in their grieving, many found that the clearly overt avoidance, insensitive comments, and exclusion from social events served to increase their perceived isolation.  Consequently, as one mother noted:

I kind of shied away from people.  I hated to meet people for the first time after . . . not strangers, but people you knew for the first time because they don't know what to say; and you don't know what to say.  So you talk around the subject so it was almost easier not to go anywhere.

While many parents experienced a need for social contact, feelings of isolation were often the result of discomfort in the role of bereaved parent and an inability to "fit in":

I didn't like to be alone, so I would go to a friend's house.  I'd phone and say 'I'm coming for coffee' and I'd spend ten minutes and I'd be uneasy there.  I'd have to get out of there.  I'd go to the mall, then ten minutes there and I had to get out of there.  Just unsettled . . . but I didn't want to be in the house alone, but still didn't know where I wanted to be.  I didn't fit in anywhere.

For these parents, the lack of support intensified their feelings of abandonment:

. . . like everybody wants to go away from it and ignore it, whether they don't want to say it because it will upset you or they are tired of hearing about it, I don't know.  But you need to talk about it over and over and over.

One father observed the effects of social stigmatization as well, saying

I did find it strange to go to town.  Some people would talk to you, some people would avoid you, absolutely avoid you.

The "taboo" nature of the child's death often resulted in the usual support systems being severed and parents being excluded from social activities. The reasoning that "I thought it would hurt you too much" was found to be particularly distressing by the following mother:

It hurt me more not being invited . . . because I want to know that life's still going on and people are still marrying and having kids . . . and that hurts that we were left out . . . but it wasn't just the weddings; people just didn't invite us places.
However, many parents experienced feelings of self-consciousness when in social or public gatherings, as one couple noted:

It was hard . . . the first, you might say, public appearance since the funeral . . . we had got the tickets and made the plans and we did a lot . . . the hardest thing [we] had to do was walk across that street to go to watch them play ball and to go and help with the hamburgers.

While attempting to re-integrate with the larger society, many parents encountered comments from others that were frequently insensitive and unhelpful:

When people told me to forgive . . . anything that would have me be generous towards [the offender] made me wild.  Anybody who told me that I ought to do something upset me . . . that I ought to go to church . . . or ought to talk to anybody or ought to join a group. I hated that.

Many previous friendships were reportedly terminated as a result of seemingly thoughtless actions or uncaring attitudes of others.  Parents claimed to have received such "horrible platitudes" or "unthinking remarks" as, "I know how you feel," "be happy she's in heaven," "it's God's Will," "it's time now to go on with your life," or as one mother explained, "people asking if I'm over it.  You're never over it.  You always have a hole in your heart."
 
While parents turned to both family and friends for support, thoughts and feelings were also shared with ministers or pastors as well.  In some cases, isolation and estrangement from immediate family members were experienced, as the following mother reported:

My family, especially with my family.  They want to go on with their lives and I'm not ready yet.  It's hard.  I feel like I'm crying alone.  I can't even talk to my mother.  She wants me to be the happy-go-lucky person I once was and that always jokes around.  It's hard on me.  I feel betrayed, deserted.  I feel like I'm on an island by myself . . . I can talk to [my husband] a little bit, but not that much.

Among the parents who were married, only half indicated that their current spouses were generally supportive and sensitive to their needs.  As the following father noted, "We had support and we had each other to lean on.  When one was weak the other was strong."   One married couple reported "going separate ways for a while," citing incompatible grieving styles as a contributing factor:

. . . he had just different needs and responses from what mine were . . . I had to see __________ 's body . . . where [he] didn't need that . . . and [he] handled it more alone than I did.

A few of the women told how they received little support from their spouses (or in one instance, ex-spouse) as one mother said:

Initially, I felt he didn't understand because he obviously wasn't hurting as much as I was because he wasn't showing it.  And he didn't care about my suffering because he didn't give me what I wanted . . . he's not someone that talks about it; how he's feeling.  And sometimes I feel when I go to talk he'll say 'look, if you just forget about it, don't even worry about it' and that's his answer . . . whereas I'm the other way.  I have to talk about things and talk them over.

Among those who were able to talk freely about their child's death with their partner, many found discussions of deep inner feelings difficult:

I never have talked to him very much about her.  We couldn't talk to each other.  I would try to and I would get this lump in my throat and not be able to get the words out and it was the same for him.  We're just physically unable to talk to each other about her.  We talk about her but not in depth.

Consequently, most respondents felt more comfortable discussing their child with friends and claimed that involvement with People Against Impaired Driving (PAID) and the relationships cultivated as a result were quite helpful:

We've gone to a lot of different things and we're finding different people with the same experience and the same feelings and thoughts . . . being involved in PAID, we're not alone in this.  Everybody's gone through this experience and the frustrations.
Due to its substantial membership and specialized focus, the organization not only provided parents with an invaluable support network but also a channel in which the hurt, anger and frustration may be put toward a positive outcome.  Thus, one mother noted that in effect:

It's an avenue for us to try to maybe do something that will help somebody else not to have to go through this.  Or just public awareness, it gives us a purpose I guess which we all need.

Death Anxiety

Most of the parents experienced heightened personal death awareness or death anxiety.  While most previous research has generally indicated little or no effect of the death of a loved one upon survivors' feelings about their own impending mortality,  this was not the case among the majority of these parents.  Those who had previously feared death indicated that they no longer did so following their child's death.  For many of these parents, death promised subsequent reunion with the deceased child in an afterlife.  As one mother aptly commented:

If there's a chance that I'll see ____________ again in an afterlife . . . if that's the reward for dying, then I don't mind it.  I don't want to leave my children here either, but . . . when the time comes, I won't be sorry at all.

Grieving by other Children in the Family

All of the parents reported that remaining children also experienced grief following the loss of a sibling.  Feelings of anger, bitterness and hostility were most often expressed, particularly by the males, although sadness and sometimes guilt were also observed.  However, many parents reported being exceedingly consumed by their own grief such that they found it difficult to recall emotional upset among remaining offspring. As the following mother noted about her daughter,

It's very hard for me to say definitively because I wasn't observing her all that much and who knew what was just her age.

Moreover, many children were no longer living in the parental home, which prevented parents from observing sibling reactions.  However, among those who had children at home, school problems were common, as the following mother related:

. . . the teachers were phoning all the time because she was hard to get along with.  I don't know if I over-spoiled her or she was just angry at the situation or she was a teenager and just . . . I don't know what to pinpoint at the time.

However, another mother claimed that aside from school problems, overt emotional upset was generally absent from her youngster:

We watched . . . he looked after himself a lot that summer and went out with his friends and had a good time with them . . . but I don't think that they're [i.e.. young children] not feeling it . . . I think they really, really repress it.

Many parents also indicated that the children frequently did not talk about their feelings to any great extent, but stressed the importance of open, honest communication nonetheless:

Encourage them to talk about the memories and how they are feeling.  Because I think many times the children get left out and sort of disregarded.

Although most indicated that their children were generally psychologically healthy and had for the most part successfully dealt with the loss, three parents reported persisting adjustment problems among one or more of their remaining children.

Coping Strategies

Only a few of these parents reported difficulty returning to normal activity.  Three described simply "going through the motions" of carrying on with previously established goals or family plans.  One mother married shortly after her child's death, another proceeded to continue with educational training, while others reluctantly went ahead with pre-arranged travel or holiday plans.  Although the majority returned to their previous places of employment, one mother terminated her work following her child's death:

I tried to go back to the university . . . I had these experiments and I tried to keep going but it only lasted about two weeks . . . I couldn't stand the people who were there . . . most of them were so incompetent in talking with me . . . so I just told my supervisor that I was just quitting . . . I had no interest anymore.  It was too hard to concentrate.

Nevertheless, many parents found a "safe haven" in their work.  As one mother noted, "My job is busy and I think it was probably one of my saving graces because I had to have my head clear."

Common among the parents at the time of the child's death was a great need for such things as knowing that the child did not suffer, "having someone who really understood," being with family, ensuring funeral preparations were "the way she would have wanted it done," or simply having the child back alive.  One mother felt she had been deprived of "the right to grieve" and of sufficient time for healing.  However, many needs were unfulfilled, as the following mother remembered:

To hold her, to touch her, to kiss her.  I didn't hold her in the hospital and I feel like I should have.  And I wanted to go back and redo the hospital.  I should never have left the room when they told me to.

When asked whether anything eased the grief process, the usual response given by parents was simply, "the passage of time."

In attempting to deal with the death of their child, these parents employed a variety of coping strategies.  One mother obtained professional help, another sought the support of a group called Compassionate Friends, while the remainder indicated various other ways of handling their grief.  One mother, for instance said that she "had to look for things to be thankful for" whereas another recalled "finding out" helped:

I just kept looking for things that would keep me going . . . I really did want to do something . . . so I really tried to find out about things like how come this guy is still driving, what kind of record he had before . . . and I kept trying to find out ... what are the laws, what can you do about it, all that stuff.

One mother revealed that having another child was helpful:

It just gives you another interest . . . so you're not dwelling on it . . . not that it would replace . . . but it just gives you . . . another thing to work on . . . that makes you go on.

Only one other mother expressed a desire to have another child, but due to the mature ages of the majority of the parents, such an option was generally irrelevant.  For a few parents, comfort was found in their religious beliefs which reportedly strengthened as a result of their tragedy:

I found it a real comfort.  I certainly never . . . blamed God . . . I wondered why did it have to be our family; why couldn't it have been the neighbor's family . . . but I think it almost strengthened our faith.

Others said that they were "very angry" with God for allowing the death of a child.  While many attributed their child's death to "God's Will" or part of a "Divine Plan" of some sort, others turned toward religion seeking answers:

I can't even say that I'm angry with Him.  I just want Him to tell me why.  And I guess then I would have answers . . . right now I haven't got those answers.

But as another mother commented, "I'm not sure if I will end up with 'that's the will of God'; maybe it's just there is no answer."
 
Although some parents found consolation and suitable explanations in their faiths, many did not feel that they had fully resolved their grief, nor did they anticipate a complete resolution in the future as one mother concluded:

Not resolved it . . . I sure wouldn't describe it as that.  I just learned to live with it . . . but if you mean get over it, I'll never get over it . . . it's unthinkable.

While the majority of the parents indicated that their grief reactions probably were the same as for others who had experienced the loss of a child,  most did not feel that others, including spouses, siblings, in-laws or parents necessarily shared grief in the same way.  As one mother specified:

We all reflect the loss of a person depending on what relationship they were to us. __________ lost a brother; I don't know what it's like to lose a brother.  I can't comprehend where he would be in his type of grief . . . and he can't understand the parenting.

Many women assumed responsibility for managing the grief of other family members which often added to the burden of grieving:

My mother had a terrible, terrible time with _______'s death.  And I was trying to give to my mom when I didn't have anything to give.  [my daughter] went through a terrible, terrible time too.  It took so much out of me and I tried to give to her as well. The little bit I had I was giving away and there was nothing left for me.

Years Later ...

Although very few parents had suffered prolonged emotional problems caused by their grief experience, many did undergo an irrevocable personality change as a result of their child's death, as one mother described:

I'm not very happy anymore . . . I don't feel that I'll ever be happy again, not the way I was. I was a very jolly, happy person. I . . . really enjoyed life. . . I don't have the same spirit anymore . . . I'm more serious now.

However, most parents had developed and  maintained effective coping strategies.  They indicated positive effects in both personal and family functioning.  They had significantly reduced or completely eliminated their consumption of alcohol and improved their driving habits.  And some developed an appreciation for the fragility of life, as one father commented:

We're a little more careful.  I would say I am . . . I look both ways.  We took a driver's course.  We are more cautious about driving in a storm.  We would stay home more I think if the roads were bad.  I think my life is more precious now.

Many revealed an overall improvement in their relationships with previous or current spouses.  Those who were married prior to the child's death had remained married and frequently mentioned that the tragedy had generally "strengthened" the marriage.  One mother indicated that this was the result of being forewarned about the possibility of marital disruption by noting that,

It made it better and that was because we were warned . . . and I know I made a conscious decision to save the marriage.

The divorced and separated parents also revealed similar positive effects as the divorced mother of two recalled:

Actually we sort of came together . . . I was glad that he felt comfortable enough to be around at the time with my family . . . that he could be there for my other two kids . . . it was probably the best time we ever got along . . . because our needs were put aside like our anger.  It was something that we had to deal with together in a different sense . . . we probably get along better now than then.

Many also indicated themselves as generally more understanding, compassionate, and sympathetic with people, and often utilized these talents for the benefit of community organizations such as PAID or other victim service agencies.  However, "anything to do with drinking and driving," particularly "the stupidity of it" or the fact that "it was so unnecessary" lingers on:

I feel a real sense of . . . how unnecessary it was . . . if she'd died of cancer or gotten AIDS or anything, like there was a reason for it . . . because she was sick . . . there was something wrong with her heart . . . but to lose her in that way I think was such a stupid way to go . . . it was so unnecessary.  Such a simple thing could have prevented it.

Regardless of the amount of time elapsed since the death of the child, three reactions remained prominent.  The first and most frequent was frustration with the courts, second was sadness, and third was anger toward the defendant.

Conclusion

The responses and reactions observed among these parents whose child was killed by an impaired driver show a striking resemblance to those following murder.  Parents who have lost their children at the hands of an impaired driver experienced an intensity of anger and hostility few could even begin to comprehend as well as a drive for revenge that is seen only among victims who have suffered as a result of another's relentless, brutal actions.  The hostility and quiet rage that lingers within as a result of the many injustices endured, threatens the vitality of the spirit and tears apart the fabric of much that was good and positive in their lives.

Parents have been ruthlessly robbed of their power to protect their child from harm.  In an attempt to reassert control over their helplessness, and thereby diminish the power of the killer -  the impaired driver - many attempted to seek vengeance through the criminal justice system.  Although the revenge and justice sought in the name of the child was entrusted to the courts, such attempts were often met with disillusionment and further disappointment.  The legal system was found to be a procedural labyrinth that not only compounded the tremendous burden of grief but was fraught with perceived injustice.  Chronic frustration in trying to obtain justice within a system that considers drinking and driving as merely a social problem and crashes as accidents was an unfortunate reality.

Extreme anger was subsequently fueled to the ultimate degree of hatred for the defendant and for some, a wish that this individual would literally "drop dead."  It is therefore virtually impossible in the eyes of most parents to envision successful resolution of this grief in which the child's life is instantly and irrevocably terminated while the perpetrator often remains free to walk the streets.
 


Without doubt, It has been very painful, very difficult to listen to  these parents.  While their stories cannot ease the tremendous pain and grief that you yourself are suffering, perhaps the knowledge that others have endured the agony and emerged to share their stories will encourage you to persevere in the face of your own tragedy.  Perhaps the "voice of the victim"  will be heard and will lead the way toward the elimination of such needless human loss and end the formidably tragic suffering.


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