Empathy, gentleness, patience: The right way to respond to parents who accidentally leave kids

We have all made wrong decisions in the moment. Losing a child that way is grief and judgment enough

Published July 16, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

  (<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-530809p1.html'>bokan</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>)
(bokan via Shutterstock)

I stood helplessly outside looking through the kitchen window at my 1-year-old son strapped into his highchair chomping happily away on Cheerios when I had accidentally locked myself out of the house while getting the morning newspaper. I had visions of him choking on his breakfast or slipping from the safety harness and tumbling to the floor.  I broke a window in our garage door so I was able to let myself in. I gathered my son into my arms and cried, grateful that all ended well. I felt like a terrible mother.

Years later, when my son was 13, he complained of a sore knee. It’s growing pains, it’s a pulled muscle, make sure to ice it, take some aspirin, I advised. Weeks later we learned that the pain wasn’t caused by a growth spurt or from straining a muscle while playing basketball. It was the last thing I expected to hear. It was the impossible, the unthinkable: bone cancer. When the doctor showed me the X-ray, the size of the tumor just above his left knee took my breath away. We were shocked, confused, devastated. I felt like a wretched, horrible mother. Would things have changed for my son if I had taken him to the doctor a few weeks earlier? Would the tumor have been markedly smaller, the treatment less grueling, would the doctors have been able to save more of his leg? I’ll never know. Thankfully, five years later, my son is doing amazingly well, but I am still haunted by the what ifs.

As parents we’ve all had those terrifying what if moments: What if you let go of your child’s hand for a split second and a car comes speeding down the road? What if, while driving, you reach for the cellphone that has fallen to the car floor? What if you don’t get your child to the doctor in time? What if … in a simple moment of distraction on your way to work, you parked your car, locked the door and rushed into the office … inadvertently leaving your helpless child behind?

On average 38 children per year perish in hot, locked cars and this summer, there has been a spate of cases -- upward of 19 already with probably many other close calls. And each week it seems we hear a news report of yet another incident.

How do these tragedies continue to happen and why so often? How can we go about our normal daily activities without a second thought to the singular person we have dedicated our life to protecting?  How can we neglect the child who the night before we tucked lovingly into bed, who just this morning  we awakened with gentle kisses in exchange for a heart-melting smile? Simply stated, unfathomable accidents happen every single day.

This is the subject of my latest novel, "Little Mercies," in which a mother unintentionally leaves her 11-month-old daughter in her van on a blistering hot day. The novel goes on to chronicle the life-altering consequences of this one moment of distraction.

I intentionally pursue difficult subject matter in my writing, stories of tragedy that are drawn from events I’ve seen on the news or read in the newspaper. My first novel, "The Weight of Silence," is about two missing 7-year-old girls who are feared abducted, "These Things Hidden" is about an infant abandoned at a safe haven site, and  "One Breath Away" is the story of a school intruder. I’m drawn to exploring those trying and at times unbearable events that regular, everyday people face and the raw emotions that emerge in such difficult situations. I choose these subjects, not for the sake of gawking, intruding upon or exploiting other people’s heartbreak. Rather, I feel it’s important to give a voice to the victims of these life-changing events: innocent people who are forced to face not only the consequences of their own mistakes but possibly searing, public scrutiny.

As a society we are so quick to judge others based on sound bites and news clips. My hope, through my novels, is that readers will examine these painful, sometimes very public struggles in a new, perhaps more gentle light. Much discussion has been centered on the appropriate consequences for parents who find themselves in these horrendous circumstances -- fines, prison, loss of custody of any surviving children. What punishment could be worse than the death of a child except the additional realization that a brief moment of one’s own distraction directly contributed to the tragedy? We don’t always have control over the circumstances that befall us -- horrible things can happen to anyone -- but we do have control over how we respond to the situations in which we find ourselves immersed. And we certainly have control over how we react to others who find themselves entrenched in the unthinkable: with patience, kindness, empathy.

But despite the fact that I choose these subjects with great deliberation, when tragedy strikes in the news, it is no less shocking and heartbreaking for me. Three years after "The Weight of Silence" was released, two young Iowa girls disappeared and I mourned with my home state. Soon after "These Things Hidden" arrived in bookstores, there were several accounts of infants being abandoned at birth and I grappled with the question of why.  Six months after "One Breath Away" was published, the horrific event in Sandy Hook occurred and I cried along with the entire nation. It’s a surreal sensation when you open up a newspaper or turn on the news and see that the plotline of your novel mirrors real life.

At times I think that I choose to pen these kinds of stories with the naive hope that if I put it in writing they couldn’t really occur in my life or in the lives of those I love. Of course, as I’ve learned firsthand, this magical thinking provides no protection. As difficult as it is to witness the heartbreak found in my novels unfold in real life, it does reinforce my motivation for writing what I do: to give a voice to the voiceless and to honestly and authentically describe the range of emotion the characters experience. It’s equally as important to me that my novels begin conversations surrounding how we confront misfortune and how we engage with society in the aftermath of such events. And ultimately, how we meet such adversity with hope.

Eventually I forgave myself for leaving my son in his highchair and locking myself out of the house. And over the years I’ve come to realize that I did my very best as we navigated the precarious journey of my son’s illness while still managing to recognize and celebrate all the good that emerged from such a difficult time. I continue to write about challenging subjects, I continue to mine the emotional landscape provided by real-life heartache that encourages discourse and debate, and as always, I continue to find hope in the world around me.

By Heather Gudenkauf

Heather Gudenkauf is a Title I Reading Coordinator, and the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the novels "The Weight of Silence" and "Not a Sound".  Heather lives in Iowa with her family. Her next novel, "Before She Was Found," goes on sale on April 16th.

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