Holding On To Guilt? When To Accept Responsibility For Your Actions, And When To Give Yourself A Break

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September 27, 2012 ‐ By Kendra Koger

I have a friend… let’s call her Kim, who had a cousin who was murdered in 2010.  The two men who stabbed him were caught and convicted.  For anyone who’s been through something like, you probably knows that at the sentencing hearing, you’re allowed the opportunity to read a victim’s impact statement, which is pretty much a letter that you write, detailing how the loss of your loved one has negatively impacted your life.  You read it in the courtroom and it allows the family members who are hurting an opportunity to tell the person who’s up for sentencing how their actions made them feel, and allows the judge to hear from the grieving family; which helps him/her to make a decision for how long the person will be sentenced.

But there are rules to impact statements and you can’t read your impact statement until your lawyer reads it to make sure that the letter follows all guidelines.

So, the night before the sentencing hearing her aunt, who was the mother of the deceased, asked if Kim could help her write the statement and email it to the lawyer.  Kim and her aunt worked for hours perfecting the words that her aunt wanted to say on behalf of her son, how she felt whenever she saw his daughter, and how the entire situation could have been avoided.

Finally, the letter was done, a copy of it was printed and a copy was sent to the lawyer.  Afraid that she might have mistyped the email address, Kim looked back and made sure that it was identical to the email address that her aunt gave her.  She rechecked her email two more times after she sent it, felt satisfied that it was actually sent and probably received, bid farewell to her aunt and called it a night.

The next morning she wakes up happy, sun is shining, birds helped her get dressed that morning, and she goes to her computer, checks her email and sees the dreaded “Mailer-Daemon” email three hours after she sent the impact statement, alerting her that the email had never been sent.

Though the day was beautiful, immediately, she felt horrible.  She tried contacting the lawyer and the courthouse to figure out if she could resend it, but it was too late.  They needed it before that day.  A dark cloud of depression came over Kim and followed her the rest of the day.  She fought back tears as her family went to the courthouse and she stayed home not wanting to witness the hurt that her aunt would feel by not being able to express how she felt for losing her son.

At the end, the two boys got seven years.  Even though Kim knew that if they would have gotten the maximum (22 years in her state) it wouldn’t have brought back her cousin, she couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt.  She kept on wondering:  How could I have miss-typed the email address?  If my aunt got a chance to express how she felt, would the judge have given the boys more time?  Oh my God, this is all my fault…  

After two days of feeling extremely guilty, her family and friends tried to convince her that it wasn’t her fault.  Her aunt shouldn’t have waited until the last minute to do it. Kim did the best she could.  The judge probably had what sentence he was going to give already made up in his mind, and it probably wasn’t going to change.

About three weeks have passed and I’m not too sure if Kim is completely over it, but the only thing she feels she can do is block it out, because no matter what, she can’t change the outcome. She can’t flip the past.

I said all of that to say this: There are times when things are going to happen that might directly or indirectly be related to your actions. During the times that you actively caused someone pain, those are the times that you need to take responsibility, make amends and try to do better.  For those times where you tried your best, and the resulting failure caused someone else pain, after you apologize, try to give yourself a break. Obsessing over what happened, how you could have fixed it and what you did wrong isn’t going to change what already happened. It’s tough, indeed, trying to move on with your life after making a big mistake, but it’s even worse when you’re bogging yourself down with guilt over something that you can’t change and know was unintentional.  In those moments, learn from the situation and give yourself the opportunity to move forward. You can’t do that if you dwell on the past.

Kendra Koger is on twitter.

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  • L-Boogie

    No but sometimes the past leaves its mark.

  • Adrina

    Good article! You really do have to make peace with your mistake. It’s easier said than done, but for the sake of your sanity, it’s necessary.