Survivor's guilt: 'I believed dad wished I’d died and my sister had survived'

Haunted by a childish lie after her little sister’s death, Helen Carroll was tortured by guilt and grief for 30 years until finally undergoing therapy

  • Helen Carroll
    Helen (left), has lived in torment over little sister Jane's (right) death.Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Helen Carroll
    A happy family has made Helen see how blessed she really is.Image Credit: Supplied picture
06 Friday

On a bright, crisp afternoon back in April 1977, my younger sister Jane and I emerged from our primary school and discovered that no one was there to collect us. Mum usually came, but that day she was in court, where she had recently trained to be a magistrate, and Dad was supposed to pick us up. Unfortunately he was late, and back then, teachers were happy for children to leave the school premises unaccompanied. As I was nine and Jane eight, we figured that we were more than grown-up enough to head for the bus stop and make our own way home.

Delighted by the chance to catch a bus on our own, we then spotted our father’s car parked at the bottom of the street. He was waiting for us after all. Our hearts sank. But when we realised Dad was engrossed in paperwork and hadn’t noticed us, I suggested that we hide behind some bushes until he drove away, which he eventually did. This childish prank might have gone down in family folklore as just that, were it not for the devastating events that followed our bus ride. Dressed in identical brown coats and holding hands, we got off the bus. We waited patiently for a car to stop before stepping on to the zebra crossing on the dual carriageway at the bottom of our street.

Then I turned and saw a second car, one that was hurtling towards us on the inside lane and showing no sign of slowing down. Instinctively, I leapt forward on to the centre reservation and, in doing so, lost hold of Jane’s hand. It took my brain a few seconds to compute that Jane had been hit by the car and was lying several feet from me in the middle of the road. I ran, calling her name, then knelt beside her lifeless body. The words ‘What have I done?’ looped round and round in my head.

If I hadn’t suggested that we hide from Dad, then at that moment we would have been at our grandparents’ house, which is where our father always took us if he did the school pick-up, eating oranges and drinking tepid long-life milk. Instead, we were in the middle of the road, my sister was dead – and I was convinced it was all my fault. However misplaced, those terrible feelings of guilt haunted me for 30 years.

The aftermath

Back at our family home following the accident, shocked by the brutality of suddenly being without a sibling so close that I could barely pinpoint where I ended and she began, I vomited in the outside drain. But at the same moment, a sense of self-preservation kicked in. I was angry with Jane for leaving me to face the wrath, which I fully expected from our parents, alone. So later, when interviewed by a smiling, young policeman who teased me for speaking in a whisper, I lied. I told him and his colleague that we had been playing hide-and-seek and never saw Dad’s car.

I didn’t dare admit what really happened – that I had made a decision to ignore him so we could enjoy the thrill of a bus ride – because I felt certain that everyone would blame me. My cunning ploy did not, however, stop me from forever blaming myself. Our story made the front page of the local newspaper the following day, and when I spotted the headline ‘Hide-and-seek sister dies’, alongside a school photograph of Jane and me, I was sick again. There it was, my lie, in black and white for everyone to see. A lie that was to haunt me for the next three decades.

I spent years grieving alone. Not wanting to add to my parents’ grief – and feeling I had no right to do so – I only ever cried when I was by myself. But with the benefit of age and life experience, I now realise I wasn’t the only one in the family tormented by guilt. My father, who passed away suddenly the day after the 11th anniversary of my sister’s death, was suffocating from a dangerous mix of grief and guilt. He was only 57 and appeared healthy up until his death from a heart attack. And while he was a smoker, I believe that a decade of guilt and regret put more pressure on his – otherwise healthy – body than any of his bad habits. His only sibling, John, is in his late 80s and still going strong.

A devout Catholic, Dad sought solace in religion, attending mass every day, but he found little comfort. To my knowledge, outside of the confessional box at least, he never spoke about his regret at arriving late to collect us from school, or driving away before he knew we were safe, but I sensed how acutely he felt it. I could see it in his pale, rheumy blue eyes, which exactly mirrored my own. It was also evident in the noise he made when he wept.

One time, when visiting my grandmother, she asked if I would like my orange peeled or cut, and he broke down sobbing in her living room. “It used to be one peeled and one cut,” he wept, as I looked on, helpless to ease his pain. I would have done anything to take away the hurt I felt I had inflicted on my father and the rest of my family.

A broken man

A few weeks after the accident, we took a family trip to the French town of Lourdes. My father believed it would bring us comfort, but my mother hated every moment of it. Others there were searching for cures for disability or illness whereas for us, she said, all hope was gone. Peeking through a crack in my parents’ hotel room door one day, I saw my father perched on the edge of their bed, head in hands and wearing nothing but a cotton vest and underpants, his body heaving with each wretched sob.

A broken man, he stayed in that room for most of the trip, being comforted by a succession of priests. I felt wholly responsible for his breakdown, though I confided in no one. Looking back now I’m an adult, it’s logical that my father would have believed the blame for my sister’s death should have been laid squarely on his shoulders. Only since becoming a mother myself, it dawned on me that my parents also had to deal with the knowledge that I, aged nine, was the sole witness to a horror few adults could have handled. But in those days no one spoke about therapy, at least not in the circles my family moved in.

I have a vague recollection of my father driving me to be assessed by a psychiatrist, who advised the courts to award me financial compensation for the trauma. With interest, it amounted to £700 (Dh4,100) on my 18th birthday. Neither I, nor anyone else in our family, was ever offered counselling. Three and a half decades later, I sincerely hope that anyone who experiences similar trauma gets the professional support they need to recover from their losses.

My mother was prescribed tranquillisers and anti-depressants, which enabled her to carry on functioning for the sake of her five surviving children, then aged from nine to 21. But right up until her dying day three years ago, aged 82, it was too painful for Mum to speak about Jane. And sadly, Dad and I were never any comfort to one another. We both learnt to hide our sadness.

Although I felt her loss, I thought I had no entitlement to publicly grieve when Jane’s death was my fault. I now realise that he probably felt the same. A huge emotional gulf developed between us as we each wallowed in our misery. For my part, I feared that Dad knew, somehow, that I had suggested Jane and I hide in the bushes and that he blamed me for her death. I imagined, and accepted, that consequently his hatred of me ran so deep that he wished it was I who had died and Jane who survived.

So I would avoid conversations with him, terrified he might one day confront me
over it. I realise now that he probably believed that I, and the rest of the family, blamed him for failing to get to school on time. Sadly I’ll never know exactly how he felt. The regret I felt following my sister’s death lodged deep in my subconscious and held me in a vice-like grip of anxiety that meant I would attack myself after every perceived misdemeanour – from letting down a friend to failing to meet a work deadline.

But now, as a 44-year-old freelance writer living in London with my husband and our three children, Daniel, ten, Isobel, eight, and Christian, four, I have spent the past few years exploring and coming to terms with my feelings of loss and guilt over my sister’s death. It was something I only felt able to do after the death of my mother. While she was alive I kept up a convincing charade of being unaffected by what had happened to Jane, never showing any emotion in front of my family for fear of adding to my mother’s all-pervading grief. In fact I rarely spoke of Jane – the mere mention of her name made my mother wince, like it caused her physical pain.

The road to recovery

Thanks to a therapy called Resolution Magic, I have been able to remove the intense pain and anxiety from my memories of that time. It’s a unique system, devised by psychotherapist Olivia Roberts, which involves an element of Neuro Linguistic Programming, but is mainly about over-writing recollections of terrible events with happy memories. Incredibly, while my conscious mind will never forget what really happened, I’ve learnt that it is possible to calm painful memories in my subconscious brain, and prevent them from causing misery and anxiety. I first used the therapy to cure agonising migraines, which developed as a direct result of the internal pain that held me in its grip for so long after Jane’s death.

Roberts, whose book, Chronic Pain and Debilitating Conditions Resolution (available through, Dh75), was published earlier this year, explained that those physical symptoms were merely masking my real underlying pain and guilt. Removing the pain and self-blame from those memories is enormously liberating. Although my rational, conscious mind may have always known that I was not responsible for my sister’s death, it has taken a long time for the nine-year-old girl who inhabits my subconscious to finally accept it.

I can now recall the fun Jane and I had on holiday in Filey, North Yorkshire, and playing hopscotch and skipping games on our path. For too long these happy memories were eclipsed by the tragedy of her death. A whole series of events contributed to us being on that crossing at that moment, and the only person who could truly be justified in feeling guilty is the woman who was driving the car – without a licence – that killed Jane. She was later fined in court – a pathetically inadequate sentence – but, if she’s still alive, her own subconscious no doubt continues to dole out far harsher punishments.

However, as I know all too well, there is no burden harder to bear than the irrational feeling you are to blame for the death of someone you love. My experiences left me with anxiety issues and a tendency to question the point of many things. However, with the help of Resolution Magic, I have been able to quieten those demons and experience the joy of life with my husband and our three delightful children. I only need recall evenings spent in Chinese restaurants, or afternoons lazing around watching films with my family, to remember just how blessed my life has been.

Share your views

  • Vamsi Krishna

    02-Nov-2012 21:19

    It's really painful about jane......but happy you have recovered....

  • Mohammed

    02-Nov-2012 18:58

    Dear Helen, Your story has bought tears in my eyes, same incident happend with me when i was i ten years old. I lost my little sister in a similar incident and till now there is no day that i didnt think of that moment and every day i think if god gives me that moment back i could have saved her. May her soul rest in peace. My dad has totally changed after that incident infact our family life has changed after that incident.

  • Ayesha

    02-Nov-2012 18:47

    I don't think it was your fault. It could have happened to anyone i don't know whats its like to know someone and lose them. I know what its like to not know someone and lose them it was my uncle i never knew him but thats what makes me more curiuos and i never even asked. I know my mom will be sad because he was the youngest. Well thats it.

  • Joseph Varghese

    02-Nov-2012 16:51

    I believe that Jane would be in heaven and with God as she was so innocent. Now as a father of three small children less than five, I understand the pain of a father who lost his sweet angel. Helen, thank you for sharing this to the world and hope that God's peace be upon you. God will forgive you as it was all an accident.

  • karim

    02-Nov-2012 15:02

    Never blame yourself for your sister's accident, it was written in her path that is how she would leave the world in this manner.. that is destiny. No one can predict our destiny or our dead, it's all planed and written by the creator. so don't weep and blame yourself. I know we feelresponsible, and look back and say i could have saved my sister's life. You did what anyone would have done, lied not to be blamed. that's ok everyone lies, no one is perfect in life. we are humans and we will make mistakes.

  • Ameenah

    02-Nov-2012 13:42

    This was a very touching story(Survivor Guilt- I believed dad wished I'd died and my sister had survived) I was almost in tears when I finished reading this. I mean, all those years of grief, guilt and loss must have made her life a real misery. Losing your loved ones can be a really big tragedy. But she finally learnt to get over it. I really liked that.