[One day] when I was fourteen… we went to my grandmother’s house, and my father left me in charge of taking care of my brother, who was only four years old…. My dad said he would come back and pick us up, but he didn’t because he was tired [and fell asleep at home]. I ended up deciding to take my little brother home, but my father thought that we were still at my grandmothers’, so he left his gun close to the bed. When my little brother got home, he started playing with the gun and shot himself fatally in the head. My father kept saying, “I told you not to come home!”
From that moment on, I have lived with that trauma. In my mind, it was all my fault. I have a lot of anger and bitterness toward myself…. What advice can you give me?
Our hearts ache thinking of the horrible emotional trauma that you have experienced! When accidents happen, it is human nature to try and place blame on someone. Furthermore, it is self‑preservation to try and rationalize that it is someone else’s fault in order to avoid the extreme anguish that comes from feeling responsible. We think this is why your father kept telling you that you should not have come home. He knew it was his own fault for not coming back to pick you up as he said he would, and for leaving a gun by his bedside. He knew that he was the adult and that he was responsible. But his self‑preservation instinct caused him to say something that would alleviate his own horrible feelings of regret. As a result, you have irrationally blamed yourself for all these years.
Of course, it does no good for your father to blame himself either, so we are not trying to point the finger at him. However, we are very clear on this issue — it was not your fault. You did nothing wrong. When he didn’t come back for you as he had said he would do, you tried to do the responsible thing by taking your brother back home. How can it be your fault that your father had a gun? And how can it be your fault that he carelessly left the gun beside the bed? No, it is not your fault, and the sooner that you accept that fact, the sooner you can begin to make a happy life for yourself. Nothing will bring your little brother back, and that is tragic. But you are not responsible.
There is a very good reason why God put a conscience inside of every human being. Our consciences help us to make right choices and to treat others as we should. And our consciences help us to recognize our need of God. But the guilt you feel is not coming from your conscience. Instead, the guilt feelings are being caused by misinformation and misinterpretation. The misinformation is what your father (and maybe other relatives) has said to you. The misinterpretation is caused by your grief and a lack of understanding that a fourteen‑year‑old adolescent is not capable of adult reasoning.
It will be difficult to change your thinking after having blamed yourself all these years. We recommend that you see a professional therapist to work through the false guilt and to remove the cloud of despair that you have been living under. If it is impossible for you to visit a therapist, then find one or two “safe” people (safe people are good listeners and good keepers of confidential information) who do not know your family, and talk freely to them about your feelings. It will be good for you to put your guilt feelings into spoken words, for when you hear them aloud, you will be able to recognize that they are irrational.
Let God comfort your heart,
Linda and Charles