Why didn’t I …. If only I had … I know I should’ve …
When accidents happen, it’s natural to look for someone to blame. Oftentimes, even though it isn’t rational, we end up blaming ourselves. A group of burn survivors, led by Mikki Rothbauer, a licensed clinical social worker, discussed this topic in a breakout session at the Phoenix Society’s World Burn Congress in September. Excerpts of that session are included here with permission from 2 burn survivors who graciously agreed to share their stories.
Rothbauer opened the session by explaining, “One of the hardest things is learning to accept what has happened—to understand that in many cases it is simply an accident and there isn’t anyone to blame.”
Often the key to acceptance starts with acknowledging the guilt and realizing that what happened wasn’t your fault.
Rothbauer reminded the audience that when you are struggling with guilt, you are the only one who can forgive yourself. “Guilt is one of the heaviest emotions. It goes hand in hand with forgiveness.”
Overcoming Survivor’s Guilt
Survivor’s guilt usually has no rational basis. Frank McGonagle, who lost his wife and sustained a serious burn injury in a car accident in 1966, is a prime example.
On February 18 of that year, Frank and his wife, Charlotte, were stopped at a traffic light 2 miles from their home in their Triumph TR-4 sports car. Suddenly the world exploded. A car struck them from behind and the Triumph caught fire. Passing motorists pulled Frank out just before the car exploded, killing Charlotte and their unborn child of 6 months.
“For years and years I couldn’t forgive myself for not getting my wife out of the car,” Frank said. “I knew it wasn’t rational, because I was also badly injured in the accident. I couldn’t even rescue myself, let alone my wife. But still I couldn’t let go of the guilt.”
Frank made a successful recovery, remarried, and began helping other burn survivors in his home state of Massachusetts. He served on the Phoenix Society’s Board of Directors, including 2 years as president. Still, he struggled to forgive himself.
Twice Frank heard Dr. Fred Luskin, an expert on forgiveness, speak at World Burn Congress about the healing power that comes from learning to forgive. After hearing Dr. Luskin for the second time, Frank was ready to take action.
The first step in Frank’s process of moving beyond guilt was forgiving the driver of the other car. He located the driver through an Internet search and arranged a meeting at a local church. As he was waiting for the man to arrive, he looked out the window and noticed that the other man had walked to the meeting.
In talking with the driver of the other car, Frank learned that the man had been struggling with the guilt of the accident for many years. He never drove again after hitting the McGonagles’ car. More than 30 years later, he either walked or used public transportation to get to his destination.
Frank could see the toll it had taken on the other driver and he told the man he forgave him. After their meeting, Frank felt that a burden had been lifted. His relief was short-lived when Frank realized that he still wasn’t able to forgive himself for not being able to get his wife out of the car.
One day, Frank’s daughter pointed out the irony in the situation—that it was easier for him to forgive the other driver than to forgive himself. That conversation served as the “Aha!” moment Frank needed to finally let go of years of guilt, self-doubt, and shame.
Barry Bennett, a licensed clinical social worker from Loyola University Medical Center, sees many parallels between Frank’s story and the stories of his clients who struggle with survivor’s guilt. “In these situations you keep looking for a rationalization that will change the ending. But the ending never changes. An accident happened. Someone was burn-injured. Someone may have died. That isn’t going to change.”
Barry believes the key to moving beyond guilt is learning to let go of the search for a rational explanation and coming to accept the things we cannot change.
Ed Kavcak, a burn survivor from Pennsylvania who lost a coworker in an industrial accident, shared some of the strategies that have helped him accept the changes wrought by a burn injury.
Ed was burned in an industrial explosion that claimed the life of coworker John Stefano, who also happened to be his wife’s uncle. It was hard enough losing a coworker and good friend—the family ties only served to deepen Ed’s remorse.
As part of the healing process, Ed reflected on how John had chosen to live life to the fullest. He and his wife’s family began to honor John and celebrate his life as part of their family holiday celebrations.
Each year Ed and his wife, Josephine, celebrate Christmas Eve and Easter with John’s family. They visit John’s grave and pay tribute to him every year during the month of August.
After battling irrational feelings of guilt because he survived the accident, Ed finally came to realize that his life was spared for a reason. “If you’ve survived an accident, you have been given a gift,” Ed explained. “It’s too precious to waste that gift feeling bad, feeling hurt.”
Ed Kavcak chooses to live life to the fullest and help others as a tribute to his coworker, relative, and friend.
Loved Ones Also Struggle With guilt
Parents, spouses, and siblings can also be overcome by guilt as they watch their loved ones endure the pain of their injury, surgeries, and medical procedures.
Although there is often no basis in rationality, parents may feel guilty when a child is injured at school or playing with friends. Spouses may experience remorse, even when their loved one is injured on the job or while the spouse is away. It’s typical for loved ones to wonder what they could have done differently to prevent the injury.
An astute therapist in the audience explained that the family members of the burn survivor often carry their guilt as a penance to show how sorry they are about what happened. “People have trouble letting go of their guilt because the guilt is what shows their love for the person who was injured and the depth of their sadness about what happened.”
The insightful counselor suggested that a better way to show that love is to look for ways to “pay it forward” by forgiving themselves and turning the accident into a catalyst for finding ways to help others.
As the session came to a close, the support and encouragement of those in the room was palpable. Survivors honored each other’s stories and affirmed their common bonds, sharing moments of insight, strength, and encouragement in their journey to move beyond guilt.
Kathy Edwards, PhD, is a burn survivor and member of the national advisory committee for the SOAR program. She has conducted SOAR training workshops in several states and serves as an online chat moderator for the Phoenix Society. She is a professor of communication at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.