Meeting the Mother of the Girl My Son Killed
I knew the time would come eventually. Two years after that horrific accident that took the lives of two twenty-one-year-old kids, and she finally came to confront me.
I had thought about the other mother almost daily since the accident. I debated writing her a letter or sending her a sympathy card on the anniversary of our children’s deaths, but something always stopped me.
Why would she want to hear from me? What if I cause more pain?
I had ultimately decided to leave it alone and focus on grieving for just one life. It was all my heart could handle.
If she wants to speak to me, she will find me.
And she did.
Just before daybreak on a Saturday morning in June of 2016, my son, Ben, left a friend’s house in his red Ford Ranger pickup. He and two buddies had been out the previous night bar hopping in Atlanta and had managed to make it the 35 miles back home. Ben had fallen asleep, but was awakened by the calls and texts of his anxious girlfriend who had been begging him to come see her after a recent fight.
Against the advice of his friends, he relented and left the house with the residual effects of the previous night and early morning partying still in his system.
Her home was only a couple miles away, and the dark, windy road that typically sees lots of commuter traffic during peak hours was empty — except for one other vehicle.
A nursing student named Danielle was on her way to clinicals on that early Saturday morning, headed in the opposite direction.
The crash was seen by no one. A resident of Wade Green road had heard the collision from her porch as she and her family were getting ready to leave for vacation. Her home was set back from the main road and behind some bushes that obstructed the noises and view of traffic.
She came running down her driveway to see two mangled vehicles on the same side of the road that was partially divided by a medium. One, a blue Honda Accord, had landed up against a light pole just on the other side of the bushes of the resident’s home. The Ranger was seen just landing back onto its tires from an apparent roll.
The woman first ran to the Honda and, upon seeing the passenger, knew there was nothing she could do. She then noticed flames igniting from within the Ranger’s mangled engine, and ran over to see if she could help. Reaching into the cab, she smacked the passenger’s leg in an attempt to stir him. There was no response from the young man slumped over the steering wheel, as the flames grew larger and the woman was forced to back away.
The small truck eventually became engulfed in flames. With my son still inside, the woman helplessly watched and waited for help to arrive.
Shortly after losing my son, I discovered a national organization dedicated to bereaved parents and siblings called The Compassionate Friends and started attended meetings. I had found a place of like-minded individuals who needed to bring purpose to the seemingly senseless deaths of their children. After two years, I had become the editor of the chapter newsletter and a small group facilitator.
Right before the chapter’s annual butterfly picnic in the Spring, I asked my husband to drop off some items for their raffle since, due to a sudden bout of malaise, I was unable to attend. When he returned home, he asked me to sit as he began telling me about a person who had come to the picnic wanting to speak to me. I knew who it was before the name left his lips.
She had seen where I posted about the upcoming picnic on my public Facebook page, and chose that time and place to confront me. My husband said he spoke with her for a little while, offered condolences, and told her that I should be at the monthly Compassionate Friends meeting the following Tuesday if she’d like to attend.
It was time to face the inevitable.
I waited in the car outside the usual monthly meeting place in the passenger seat unable to bring myself to enter the building. My husband, who had driven me for moral support, sat in the driver’s seat.
“That’s her,” he said as I watched three women walk past the front of our car. One of them noticed my husband through the windshield, then saw me, and began walking towards our car as I slowly exited the vehicle. She carried an 11 by 14 framed picture in her arms, and a bag of files hung from her shoulder.
In the days preparing for this moment, I attempted to anticipate what she might have to say so that I could mentally prepare responses. Ultimately, I had decided I would simply let her speak and say whatever it was she was needing to purge in order to help her heal.
Since punishing my son was no longer an option, the woman who made him was the next best thing.
I remained quiet for the few seconds we stared at each other in the parking lot as I waited for to speak. She was matter-of-fact and pointed as she began, as if she had spent the last two years rehearsing.
She started telling me about her daughter and the kind person she was, about what her life aspirations had been, and the last words spoken between them the previous night before the accident. She then handed me the large framed picture of Danielle. Although I had seen her picture many times before on social media after the accident, I knew this acknowledgement from me was what she needed.
I can’t remember the fine details of the conversation, but two specific questions made their mark in my memory. She asked why, if it was alcohol that killed our children, did I continue to post pictures of our family drinking wine and beer at gatherings, and sharing memes and jokes about drinking on social media. The only response I could think of was that it was our culture, and we wanted to continue to live our lives as normally as possible for the surviving family members.
She then asked why I never reached out to her, and when I gave her my answer, she told me my actions — or lack thereof — caused more pain than what I thought a communication from me would evoke. My inability to mention Danielle in any of my social media tributes to Ben, hurt her immensely.
This mother simply wanted her daughter to matter to me and my family as much as Ben did.
As our conversation continued, my empathy turned to anger when she told me how she had been through my son’s social media pages and was disgusted by all the pictures of him partying with his friends. The bag of files she carried were copies of public records from the times Ben had gotten into trouble with the law since he was a teenager through the age of twenty.
“Your son was not a good person,” she said.
I soon realized that her intention in meeting me was not only to have me acknowledge her daughter’s life, but to cause pain and disgorge her hatred and anger over her death. Since punishing my son was no longer an option, the woman who made him was the next best thing. She had been building a case to prove to me what an awful person my son was.
And I let her.
Everything inside me wanted to defend my son, but something forced me to remain calm. I needed to keep in mind that she knew nothing of my child. Nothing of how he loved Toy Story and was afraid of dogs when he was a little boy; how he loved to walk to the store with his grandmother and would defend his little brother from bullies at school; how he was always willing to help and counsel his friends suffering from their own addictions, and how there were over 200 people at his Celebration of Life.
She only knew Ben as the man who had killed her daughter, and nothing I could say would ever change that.
When she finished speaking, all I could offer were my condolences for her loss, and an apology for how my decision to avoid contact had hurt her. The other two women who had accompanied her for support, thanked me for listening, as did Danielle’s mother, and we parted ways.
Since I couldn’t give her peace, I opted to simply make space for her instead.
I realized that day, that our perspectives of our children’s deaths were so different. Losing Ben gave me a greater appreciation for the people in my life and the fragility of our existence, and I was choosing to live and be happy to make my son proud. But for the other mother, the survivor’s guilt was just too strong. She was holding on to the anger as a connection to her only child and, despite my attempt at offering some small semblance of closure, I knew she might never choose to heal.
Every person grieves differently, and the way one grieves is primarily based on perspective.
During the weeks and months after that meeting, there were times when I was disappointed in myself for not defending my son’s name. Would he have been upset or perceive me as weak? I have since chosen to believe that the force that caused me to stay quiet and let her speak, was Ben.
I know he would have wanted me to help her in any way I could, and attempting to defend his name and memory would have only added salt to a possibly irreparable wound. Since I couldn’t give her peace, I opted to simply make space for her instead.
It has been two and a half years since that meeting. I stopped attending the monthly gatherings because I felt like I had gotten what I needed at the time, and have since decided to focus on making the best of the decades I have left. I feel that following my dreams will do more to inspire my remaining children and those that may find themselves as survivors on the same journey behind me.
Since the fatal accident, I’ve had the courage to quit my job and leave societal expectations behind for a life of travel and writing. A courage that never existed before my loss. In May, my oldest daughter plans to quit her job as a dental assistant and accompany her mother on a month-long journey to hike the Camino de Santiago in Spain, where we will spread some of her brother’s ashes.
I never spoke to the other mother again, and I don’t know if I will ever have the courage to reach out to her on the anniversary of our children’s death. But I continue to wish her peace, as I continue to press on.
I don’t know what Danielle’s mom feels about the afterlife, but I’d like to think there was a reason for both of those twenty-one-year-old kids to be alone on that empty road at the same point in time, headed in opposite directions.
I also believe that for every negative in life, there is a positive of equal magnitude, and an opportunity for beautiful transformation with every tragedy. I picture our kids watching over us, waiting to see what we make of ours.
But that’s just my perspective.