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How people may cope with causing unintentional deaths

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It's a double tragedy - the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie "Rust" and the weight it's placed on Alec Baldwin, who held the revolver that fired the fatal shot. By his own words, he's gripped by grief and sorrow.

At a press briefing today, the Santa Fe County District Attorney said it's too early in the investigation for charges. The facts so far suggest that Baldwin killed Hutchins unintentionally, a situation that Maryann Gray knows too well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MARYANN GRAY: I was not driving recklessly, and Bryan was just being an exuberant kid. Although the justice system absolved me of any legal responsibility, I blame myself for his death. For 25 years, I've thought of Bryan every day.

MCCAMMON: That's Gray on our program back in 2003. It was the first time she spoke publicly about her accident. And in light of the death of Halyna Hutchins, we wanted to talk with Gray again. Gray is a psychologist and founder of a support group for people who've unintentionally killed others.

Maryann, welcome to the program.

GRAY: Thank you for having me.

MCCAMMON: When you hear about incidents like the death involving Alec Baldwin, which, of course, has not officially been ruled an accident, what is that like for you?

GRAY: I think quite a bit about both the victim and the person who unintentionally caused the fatality. I know that the unintentional killer is filled with anguish, probably in shock and trauma, as well as, of course, grief and fear and shame.

MCCAMMON: And, Maryann, as we heard in the introduction, a young boy named Bryan ran in front of your car many years ago. You were 22 years old at the time, just headed out to go swimming on a hot day. Nobody wants to think about it, but the reality is that something like that could happen to anybody at any time. And yet there isn't a lot of data about how common this kind of situation is. What is your sense from your work of how frequently this happens and why there aren't good numbers about it?

GRAY: Sure. In fact, unintentional killing, sadly, happens far more often than most people realize. From my own research, I feel very confident saying that a minimum of 30,000 people per year in the U.S. alone unintentionally kill someone. Hundreds of thousands more unintentionally injure someone seriously enough that they need emergency room or hospital care.

The reason I believe that they're not well known, the whole issue is understudied, is because it's so terrifying. We like to believe that good people do good things and bad people do bad things. But life doesn't always work out that way, and it's very frightening to realize that. It's much easier to turn away.

MCCAMMON: In your research and work with others who've caused unintentional deaths, how are the people - the unintentional killers, as you've called them - how are they viewed by other people not connected with the tragedy?

GRAY: That varies also. All too often, the unintentional killers are ostracized. They're blamed. Sometimes they're just trolled and tortured on social media. One of my goals in speaking out like I am with you today is to encourage a more thoughtful and ultimately compassionate response. It doesn't mean we don't hold them accountable. We do. But can we do that with compassion and caring and recognition that they, too, are suffering, even though that does not excuse them from consequences?

MCCAMMON: And what does that kind of support look like? What is helpful?

GRAY: First, I believe that psychotherapy can be very helpful, and I routinely recommend that to pretty much anyone who has unintentionally killed or seriously injured someone. Beyond that, I think it's important to be able to tell one's story. I believe that these tragedies have no inherent meaning. But we create meaning. So when we tell our story, when we talk about it, when we receive support and compassion, we can begin to create that meaning. What's important, I believe, is to do that in honor of the victim and in memory of the victim. And in doing that, we can never make up for what we did. We can never even the scales. But we can regain a sense of agency and efficacy that we not only do bad things, but we can also do good things in the world. And finally, we regain a measure of self-respect, trust in ourselves, and then peace.

MCCAMMON: That's Maryann Gray, psychologist and founder of Accidental Impacts, a support group for people who've been involved in unintentional deaths. Maryann, thank you.

GRAY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.