Monday, August 24, 2009

What If It Is Your Fault?

You may have missed it in all the static that sometimes passes for news, but as Hurricane Bill passed off the Maine coast yesterday, a large group of people watching the resulting surf were hit by a gigantic wave. Three were swept out to sea, including 7 year-old Clio Dahyun Axilrod and her father. Clio died, her father was rescued by the Coast Guard, and her mother was seriously injured. 16 people were admitted to the hospital.

Now, let me ask you to imagine a conversation with Clio's parents. They were with her when the wave hit, and in fact were moving away from the shore because of the danger. There had been warnings issued about the surf. What do you want to say to them? What is your gut instinct?

Generally speaking, people give one of two types of answer. The first is, "What were you thinking, that was an incredibly stupid place to be." The second is, "It wasn't your fault, you couldn't have known." We are very black and white about this sort of thing. I'm reminded of a line the Wizard sings in the musical Wicked:
There are precious few at ease
With moral ambiguities
So we act as though they don't exist

You're either right or wrong, at fault or innocent.

The fact is, the truth in this situation is somewhere in between. Yes, there were warnings about the waves and they should not have allowed their daughter to be where she was. And yes, they could not possibly have known that that wave was coming at that moment, and they were trying to move away.

The fact is also that neither of our natural reactions to this family are likely to be at all helpful to them. "It's all your fault" is hardly the support they need. They can beat themselves up, thank you, without our help. At the same time, "It's not your fault" denies reality, and actually takes away their permission to talk about how they are feeling. If you tell them it's not their fault when they think it is, you're telling them they're wrong. They're not going to want to talk to you after that.

So how do people learn to live with situations like this? How do you go on, knowing that you are at least partially responsible for the death of your own child? All I know is that people do. They make their peace. They come to forgive themselves for their human failings. They try to prevent similar things from happening to others. They turn to their spiritual beliefs about forgiveness and the afterlife. It isn't easy.

We can't tell people how to feel, and trying only makes things harder. The best we can do is affirm that what they are feeling makes a lot of sense, and help them explore what those thoughts and emotions mean to them. As judgmental as we like to be, it's not about our judgment.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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