Dear Family Advisor

My father killed someone in a car accident -- and I can't stop blaming myself for not having taken away his keys earlier

Last updated: Jan 26, 2009

My father had a very serious car accident two years ago, and sadly, he killed someone. I had been trying to get him to stop driving for months before, but I live in another state. I had already spoken to his doctor and had even taken his keys away. (He called a locksmith.) It was devastating for all of us, but Dad didn’t act as upset about it as I think he should have. He got manslaughter and because of his age, his license was revoked and he is under house arrest -- and I’ve moved him into an assisted living. He’s recovered, but I haven’t.

I feel so guilty that someone lost their life because I didn’t move fast enough. I fight depression all the time. I just can’t seem to shake this. I don’t know if you can help me, but at least our situation might serve as a warning to others.

What happened to your dad and to the family involved in this accident is devastating. You have every right to feel shocked and heartbroken -- but you had no way of knowing this was going to happen. You were trying to deal with this problem, and thought you had when you took your dad’s keys. It's a common impulse to feel responsible for the accidents caused by the seniors in our lives. (Just like with teenagers; both incidentally, are high-accident groups.) But you can’t control what someone else does. 

I recently heard that a person who has experienced a tragedy has to cry 1,500 hours to begin to work through the emotions that come with such an event. That’s a metaphor for the emotional work you have to do to incorporate what happened. You'll likely never forget it, and in many ways, it will change you -- but this isn’t necessarily bad. Hoping your situation can be used to help others, as you say, is a positive part of your healing. MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers), for example, was started by people whose lives were impacted in such a profound way that they felt compelled to do something good with it. I've heard that the definition of forgiveness is when you can finally say, “Thank you for giving me this situation to learn and grow from.”

Guilt can be crippling and tough to work through. So is grief -- you're also mourning the loss of this family, of your dad, and your own hopes, such as about taking good care of your dad. It's a long process. I hope you’re talking to someone (such as a pastor or a counselor) with whom you can be honest, who can help you walk this journey.

You may also feel guilty about the moments when you don’t feel guilty. It may be difficult to feel that you can enjoy yourself after such a loss by going to a movie or out with friends. One approach:  Treat yourself as if you were your best friend. I bet you would offer her an enormous amount of tenderness, patience, encouragement in the same situation. You would remind her again and again that she did the best she could.

There could many causes for your dad's lack of response. Many diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, affect a person’s ability to feel or to express feeling, for example. There's actually a term called “the Parkinson’s mask" in which the person's facial muscles don’t always mimic how they’re feeling. Also, the mind is so powerful that we simply can deny and block something that causes us great pain. You may never witness your dad acting or feeling remorseful -- but that doesn’t mean you have to make up for his lack by being doubly hard on yourself.

Your dad still needs you. Try not to turn your back on him to avoid the pain. He didn’t mean to do this terrible thing. Every time you extend kindness to your dad, you're extending that same hand to you. This is going to take awhile, but with help, you can come to a place of peace.

Like you, I hope that your story helps others to confront the touchy issue of elder driving and to make a plan full of alternatives -- before a tragedy occurs. Your story could help save many lives.