My wife was killed 13 years ago.
She was 7.5 months pregnant with our first son.
And I was the one who killed her.
Our story started like a fairy tale; I fell in love at first sight, then waited 2.5 years before her parents gave me permission to ask her to start courting, and finally resulted in a proposal at the top of the Empire State Building.
She said “YES!”
Our first year of marriage was not a fairy tale.
Marriage can be difficult, especially at first and I felt frustrated that our romantic fairy tale didn’t just continue automatically.
Then on Sunday, March 7th, we were on a road trip.
We had just spent the entire weekend celebrating our first year of marriage.
We had dinner at our favorite new restaurant, took pictures of us eating our piece of wedding cake we had frozen and talked about what it would be like when baby Sam showed up on the scene.
We were happy together and our future looked brighter than ever.
Or so I thought.
We got on the road later than we planned. A couple of friends had us over for dinner and we had such a fun time, the time just slipped away.
“It’s late,” I said after we were driving for a half an hour. “Why don’t you lean your seat back and get some rest. I’ll wake you when we get there.”
“I love you.”
Those were the last words we spoke to each other .
45 minutes later, I fell asleep while driving.
I woke up just before impact.
Panicked, I slammed on the brakes, heaved the wheel to avoid the truck we were about to collide with from behind.
Our truck rolled over and over. It rolled so many times I couldn’t count.
In the accident, I lost consciousness.
I regained consciousness 3 different times:
The first time was laying on the side of the road in the crumpled heap that remained of my truck, I heard one of the paramedics shout:
“There’s a live body over here!”
The second time, I woke up in the hospital, drugged up and confused.
There was a stranger standing by my bed, looking priestly and very grave.
“Where’s my wife?” All I could muster was a whisper, with a broken neck and body full of pain meds.
I tried again.
“Where’s my wife?”
Still no answer.
Just that grave look, as if he were just as confused as me about how to answer the question.
Now, I started to remember what happened, felt that same surge of panic again and demanded:
Finally came his answer:
“They only brought back one body from the accident.”
I passed out.
The third time I woke up, I was in a new room in the hospital.
I opened my eyes. Everything was blurry at first, but I could see people, many people in my room. All friends from the church we attended.
When my eyes cleared, though, the first person I saw was Libby’s dad.
The look of grief, sadness, anger and heartbreak on his face…I still shudder when I see it as I type this.
“How could you?!?” was what his eyes said to me.
Whether that was what he was thinking, or whether that was a projection of my own feeling of guilt, I don’t know.
But seeing the grief and pain in his eyes, that his precious daughter had been killed at such a young age, full of life and pregnant with his grandson, and I had been the one responsible…
In that moment, what would I have given to be anyone else in the world.
I wanted to be anyone else in the world so I could come into that hospital room, push everyone else out of the way and strangle the shit out of that person in that hospital bed.
“HOW COULD YOU?!?!” I could see this other me shouting, straddled over Michael Griswold’s body with my fingers clenched around his throat, banging his head on the bed until the last breath expired from his lungs.
We can use the circumstances of life to create beauty or destruction.
And after her death, desperate for it to “mean something”, I started a business from scratch and made almost $750,000 in the first year.
But then, just as quickly, it all went up in smoke.
Or, more honestly, I set it on fire and watched as it blazed.
Of course, no amount of money can replace a human life.
And the amount of money I made could certainly do nothing to assuage her family’s grief and sadness.
But we all look for ways to turn tragedy into triumph don’t we?
Before Libby died, I was a good man; honest, faithful, hardworking.
I had friends I loved and who loved me.
After I set the business ablaze though, all those things changed.
I borrowed money from family and friends that I haven’t yet paid back.
I told them it was to launch a business. But I used part of it to support my lifestyle that portrayed an image I couldn’t hold up on my own.
I made out with my best friend’s wife.
I came on to my friends’ 17 year old daughter.
One by one, my friends left, disgusted and betrayed by my behavior.
In moments of desperation, I’d search for a therapist, make an appointment, and then hear the same advice every time.
I told each one of them the story, how my life felt cursed, doomed, like I was hand-picked as some awful lottery winner of misery.
I knew I was responsible, that the accident was my fault. I fell asleep, that caused our collision that killed Libby and baby Sam.
But I also knew that almost everyone had dozed off behind the wheel before, without the same disastrous consequences.
It felt like such an injustice. I was angry, but at someone I couldn’t name.
I didn’t have the maturity at the time to understand the right answer, so I kept waiting for life or God or whatever force brought this injustice to then do right by me.
To put it another way, I lived as if life and everyone in it owed me something.
After hearing the story, each therapist would give some variation of the same advice:
You need to forgive yourself.
The accident wasn’t your fault.
Doesn’t that sound funny to you too?
If the accident wasn’t my fault, what was there to forgive?
They had one thing right, though. I did need to forgive someone.
It just wasn’t me that I needed to forgive.
This may sound weird, or despicable, or even outlandish when you read it, but I needed to forgive her parents, her family, our friends. If you can stomach it, I even had to forgive God.
And I needed to forgive them because I was angry at them.
A minute ago, I told you I wanted to strangle the shit out of myself in that hospital bed. And what you’re reading now might sound contradictory.
But the difference is this:
While we might be mad at ourselves for something we’ve done at first, we can’t keep up that anger with ourselves and continue living. We all have a self preservation instinct, even psychologically.
And once that initial anger passes, if we don’t deal with it, that anger shifts from being pointed toward ourselves and is pointed toward someone, anyone else.
Her parents, our friends, even God become the scapegoats of my anger and immaturity.
Even as I type this now, I can hear a familiar voice echoing in my ears:
“What right did I have to be angry at them? I was the one to blame.”
And that’s the embarrassing thing to admit:
whether I had a right to be angry at them or not, I was.
Angry at them for seeming to blame me with their eyes while they told me the accident wasn’t my fault.
Angry at them for the things I imagined they said to each other when I wasn’t around.
Angry at them for saying they loved me but not inviting me to family events.
Angry at them for the awkwardness we felt whenever we happened to run into each other.
I’m not saying I was right to feel this way.
I’m saying instead that by trying to forgive myself, I was aiming at the wrong target.
I couldn’t see it then; I didn’t have the maturity or the courage to understand that I was angry at them, even if I had no right to be.
No matter how true it was that her death was my fault, the other truth was I was angry at everyone else.
I wanted anyone or anything to blame to avoid the hard and unchanging truth:
My wife and son were killed in a car accident that resulted from my negligence.
Nothing I could do would change it, and I would have to live with that for the rest of my life.
After thinking about it, I don’t think I’m alone in my tendency to look for anyone I can to blame instead of taking responsibility for my own life.
In this instance, blaming everyone else came with a steep cost:
The weight of my anger at the world, the burden of my immaturity very nearly cost a third life: my own.
One day I stood on the edge of a cliff in a third world country wondering what my last thought would be when I leapt into the air to leave all my failures, guilt and shame behind.
The thought that came to me may have saved my life.
That thought was this:
“I wish you wouldn’t have done that.”
Something about the simplicity of that thought arrested my attention, made me curious; woke me out of the daze.
And then that old teaching came echoing in my ears: “If you don’t forgive others, neither will you be forgiven.”
It sounds a bit religious to put it that way.
Stripped of the undertone, I had to stop blaming others for the life I created by my choices. Stop feeling sorry for myself.
In a word, it was time for me to grow up.
To deal with the reality that was now my life.
It’s funny to type those words; to realize that the years of angst and frustration, the ways I hurt people I loved all could have been avoided by doing the one thing staring me in the face:
The answer I was looking for seemed so much more…”Important”… so much more “Life-Changing” than that at the time.
Now, it’s almost a year after standing at the edge of that cliff.
Ironically, i’m writing this post from the same third world country I was in a year ago.
Except this time, I’m not standing on the side of a cliff.
I’ve begun rebuilding my life.
Now with the maturity to handle life without blaming others for the circumstances I don’t like,
Without hiding the things I’m afraid people will find out.
To make good on the promises I broke.
Without the wagging finger of my own conscience.
And free from those back-breaking burdens, to create the success we all want for ourselves, but sometimes get off track as we try to get there.
Written and used with permission by Michael Griswold