Cinematographer Halyna Hutchins was killed and director Joel Souza wounded after the actor Alec Baldwin fired a prop gun on the set of the movie “Rust” on Thursday. But there was a third victim in the incident: Baldwin himself. How does a person who has caused a death or injury come to grips with what they did, however inadvertently? How do they cope with the horror, guilt, shame and overwhelming pain they feel? How do they handle their own trauma?
From a psychological perspective, understanding the role of guilt, responsibility and reparation can help such an individual process the experience in the healthiest possible way. Recognizing these differences can also help the family and loved ones of the person who died.
Psychological guilt is the feeling we have when we blame ourselves for having violated our own values or standards.
To start with, it’s important to recognize that someone who was involved in the accidental death of another person has experienced a trauma themselves. Ghislaine Boulanger, an authority on trauma that occurs in adulthood, writes in her book “Wounded by Reality” that traumatic experiences can shatter an individual’s sense of who they are and destroy their sense of safety in the world.
The experience can raise life-altering questions about who they are and how they became this person. A case in which someone fires a gun they thought was loaded with blanks that results in a death could also annihilate their trust in others and the world around them. Like other trauma survivors, such a person may believe that they will never feel safe again. Others might ask — and they might start wondering themselves — if they somehow, in some way, meant to do it.
Thus, the trauma can also disrupt their overall sense of being a good person. Guilt can actually be a way of restoring that sense of equilibrium. It’s as though they are saying to themselves: “I am a good person, because I feel so awful about what I have done.”
But guilt alone can become destructive, and it can add to the social and psychological isolation that trauma can create if left to fester. Psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell writes that guilt is a feeling that demands compensation, either from oneself or from another, in order to be relieved. One could say, in other words, that guilt is tied to blame. It’s human nature to want to find someone who is at fault, whether that someone is the perpetrator, the victim or, in the “Rust” case, someone who took the actions that led to a gun with live ammunition being on set.
According to Steven Stosny, who writes for Psychology Today, psychological guilt is the feeling we have when we blame ourselves for having violated our own values or standards. Thoughts like, “Somehow it was my fault. I could have prevented it,” remind us of those values. Remaining guilt-ridden, which is sometimes our psyche’s attempt to make sure nothing like this will ever happen again, also makes us feel like we are upholding our own standards.
Legal conviction and punishment are society’s way of helping families and loved ones feel compensated, at least to some degree, for the harm caused to the victim of a crime. But in an unintentional killing or injury, there often is no legal compensation — and that can leave not only the victim’s family at loose ends, but also the perpetrator. If a person isn’t considered guilty by law, what do they do about their own feelings of culpability? And when there is trauma, they may not be free of guilt even if they are punished, put in jail and serve their sentence.
Instead, feelings of guilt can be mediated by accepting responsibility for their action while recognizing it wasn’t purposeful. For instance, they acknowledge that they pulled the trigger — but they also recognize that they didn’t do it intentionally or know it was loaded with live bullets, so they can let go of the belief that they could have prevented it from happening. Knowing that the harm they caused was not in their control diminishes the need for guilt and lifelong self-punishment.
Beyond that, those involved in accidental killings are also helped by finding some way to make reparation. Even doing so indirectly — for instance, volunteering to help others who have suffered a similar loss or joining an organization that advocates for gun control — can restore a feeling that they are living up to their own values.
Knowing that the harm they caused was not in their control diminishes the need for guilt and lifelong self-punishment.
When there is trauma, however, guilt frequently does not respond to these actions, and it may be impossible to manage the feelings on their own. Trauma specialists like Boulanger say that finding someone, often a professional, with whom they feel safe speaking about the experience and who can bear witness to their memories and the painful, confusing and frightening emotions that accompany them, can help make those feelings more manageable. Eventually, that can help a person restore a sense of trust in themselves and in the world.
While guilt can demand punishment, taking responsibility makes space for the pain and sadness and horror to be integrated into the vast complexity of emotions that are part of life. Making reparation can reconnect them to their own values and to other people, so that they can manage the echo of the trauma, forgive themselves, remain true to their values and reconnect to the world.