Accidental Killers
Marie Claire Australia|June 2021
What happens after you unintentionally cause a death? Shame, secrecy, sorrow and a severe lack of resources mean those who take a life often feel as though they’ve lost theirs, too.
Alexandra English

Theresa Ruf didn’t mean for it to happen. She didn’t see the man until after she hit him; even then, she saw the blood and the crumpled motorcycle first. The 42-year-old had been driving home in Illinois one evening in June 2012 when the sun blinded her at the exact moment he slowed to turn into his driveway. At the wheel of her SUV, she felt “a strange impact” and pulled over. She tried to staunch his wounds with her clothing until help arrived. Another driver rushed over and pulled her away. He started to pray — not for the man on the road, but for her: “‘God, protect her; God, give her strength,’” she recalls. “At that point, I completely lost it. [When I heard] him praying for me, I knew the man wouldn’t make it.”

For three days, Ruf hid in a walk-in closet. It was the only way to drown out the sound of traffic, motorcycles especially. She didn’t sleep, she didn’t eat; her husband was at a loss. “I had continual night terrors and flashbacks when I would drift off, and I would wake up screaming,” she says. The details wouldn’t stop coming: she closed her eyes and saw the road, the man lying on it. “When I was awake, I was constantly crying.” Her husband took her to the emergency room, where she was admitted into a psychiatric facility. She spent six days in a suicide ward where she says no one could explain what was happening to her.

It’s common among accidental killers — those who were not drunk, distracted, or otherwise acting negligently — to experience a form of post-traumatic stress disorder, complete with flashbacks, hallucinations, mental fog, memory loss, and nightmares. They also suffer from extreme guilt, self-disgust, and what’s known as moral injury: the idea that they are inherently evil and dangerous.

Of course, there is no moral difference between the person who has the near-miss and the person who crashes. It could happen to anyone. “Most of us cannot comprehend taking someone’s life, and then, accidentally, we do it,” says Sarah Godfrey, a psychologist, and co-chair of the Australian counselling service GriefLine. In her clinical practice, she has seen clients who have accidentally killed another person and says the effects are “enormous and distressing”. “Suddenly, we’re in a different category – I’m a person who has taken someone’s life. We slide into this grey area: I’m not a murderer, but I have taken life away. It’s a strange psychological space to be sitting in: lost between those who don’t and those who intentionally do.”

Those lost in that space are also often left to wander alone. There are self-help books for seemingly every affliction (for the sober curious and the financially unfit, to those dealing with heartbreak, or a closet that doesn’t spark joy), yet none for anyone who has accidentally killed someone. In the US, police, social workers, and hospital staff receive no training on treating people involved in accidental fatalities. The story isn’t so different in Australia. A spokesperson for Beyond Blue said: “We don’t have resources or people with experience in that specific area.”

“In my 20 years as a psychologist, I haven’t seen any niche in psychology or helplines that support those who have unintentionally caused a death,” Godfrey says. “That doesn’t mean they don’t exist somewhere, but it is an area in need of attention.”

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