Monday, July 24, 2017

Teen Grief Following a Fatal Accident

[Reviewed and updated July 8, 2022]

Guilt is to the spirit what pain is to the body.  ~ Elder David A. Bednar

A reader writes: My niece, nephew and my nephew’s girlfriend were in a car accident four weeks ago, and my nephew was the driver. Another car cut him off and he hit a concrete divider. His car flipped over a couple of times and his girlfriend was killed instantly. My nephew is not handling this well at all. How can I help him deal with his grief, or perhaps you can help with contacts with other individuals who have been through the same or similar loss. My nephew is 17 and his girlfriend was 17 also. Any help, information or contacts you can provide would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

My response: I’m so sorry to learn of the tragic auto accident that took the life of your nephew’s girlfriend. I can only imagine how horrible this has been for you, your nephew and all the families affected. Auto crashes are among the most unanticipated of deaths, and can seriously complicate everyone’s ability to grieve and come to terms with their losses.

I suspect that your nephew believes in his heart that he was somehow responsible for his girlfriend’s death, no matter how unintentionally, and so it is very likely that he has serious guilt feelings to resolve. Since this girl undoubtedly was very close to him, someone he loved dearly, his burden is especially heavy. In addition to the grief he feels for her, he is bound to be having strong feelings of regret and guilt for having caused, or helped to cause, her death. Because he himself was in the accident that took his girlfriend’s life, he is also at risk for developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress. It will be very difficult for him to grieve for his girlfriend until the trauma of the accident itself is dealt with.

Because your nephew’s driving played a part in this death, the guilt he is feeling can be overwhelming and can be made worse by the condemnation of other family members (or by his girlfriend’s family)—all of which can seriously complicate his mourning. Even though no one else may be blaming him for this accident, it will be very difficult for him to forgive himself when he knows that losing control of his car is what contributed to this terrible result. I hope this is not the case, but if his girlfriend’s family should decide that negligence was involved, at some point there may be charges or a lawsuit that will feed into his guilt.

You say that your nephew is not handling this well at all. I’m not sure what that means, since I don’t know if any of us would handle such a horrible death very well, but your caring message to me indicates your genuine concern. If he is not eating or sleeping normally, not doing well in school, withdrawing from his usual social contacts and otherwise not functioning normally, I would suspect that the guilt he is probably feeling is eating away at him and affecting him physically and emotionally. You also need to take into account his age and level of development. Adolescent or not, it is important that your nephew get the support and guidance he needs to work through this soul-shattering, life-changing event, whether that support comes from a caring family member such as yourself or from someone outside the family circle. Your nephew must be reminded that he loved this girl and he would never have done anything intentionally to harm her. When you are with your nephew and the timing is right, you can remind him that life is capable of presenting us with terrible turns from time to time and you know that his girlfriend’s death was the last thing in the world that he would have intended to happen. He needs to come to terms with the fact that his girlfriend’s death was an accident and that he is not a murderer.

If over time you think your nephew is still carrying this burden of guilt and you see that it’s not getting any better, you can encourage him to seek out and talk with a trusted pastor or rabbi, high school counselor or qualified professional counselor who is familiar with trauma work as well as grief work. (You can call your local public library, hospice or mortuary to find out what PTSD and bereavement support services are available in your community.)

Please do not expect this grief to resolve itself quickly. Research about sudden, violent death tells us to expect at least a four-to-seven year recovery period ~ and even that can vary. The person usually spends the first year psychologically numbed to the reality of what happened, and recovery (whatever that may mean) is never really “complete.” People never “get over” or "recover" from tragic events such as this one. Rather, with understanding and support, they get through them and learn to live with them.

I hope this information proves useful to you. Please know that I am thinking of you and your nephew, and my heart goes out to both of you.

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Related: © by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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