"I thought accidents happened to 'other people'. I was wrong."

I have two friends whose children have drowned in recent years.

For the first time in weeks, I had found myself with a free night. I was home and didn’t have any work to do. What a rare treat! I should have watched some mindless television. Even better, read a book. Instead, I found myself embroiled in a Facebook fight with fellow mothers, going round for round over the issue of perfect parenting, and how it is that any mother could ‘let their child die’.

This is a sensitive issue for me. I have two friends – wonderful mothers – whose children have drowned in recent years.

I met Kat Plint when, working as a journalist for the ABC, I interviewed her about pool safety. Back then, I didn’t have children. I was sympathetic to Kat and did truly believe that what happened to her daughter Hannah was a terrible accident. However, I don’t think I ever imagined it could happen to me.

Fast forward five years and my friend Rachel lost her precious son Hamish in another drowning accident. This tragedy shook me to the core. I had always – subconsciously – believed that losing a child through an accident was something that happened to ‘other people’.

As a broadcaster, reading news bulletins and reporting on stories of children losing their lives in accidents, I would find myself searching for the detail that would assure me that what had happened to ‘that parent’ wouldn’t happen to me.

They backed a 4WD over their child? I don’t have a 4WD, and my kids don’t have access to the driveway. Their child drowned in the bath? I always watch mine. A cord blind accident? Don’t have blinds. They weren’t supervising at the time? I certainly would be.

But Rachel was a parent just like me; a parent who loved her children and who would have done anything for them. And yet she lost her child. If it could happen to her, it truly could happen to any of us. What a horrifying thought.

So what do we mothers do with such a realisation? For me, it made it hard to sleep at night. I became ultra-cautious. Everyday moments with my children were treasured. Importantly, it gave me a strong sense of empathy for mothers who had lost their children in terrible accidents.

‘It is our duty to keep our little ones safe’

But not all mothers react in such a way. Let’s go back to my online fisticuffs on the Mamamia Facebook page. It was on a thread linking to last week’s story about Tammie Lacey and the tragic drowning death of her son Jack.

There was plenty of sympathy for Tammie and Jack, but just as much vitriol. Commenters suggested that this is what happens when parents don’t supervise their children. The word ‘negligent’ was thrown around.

I tried to make the point that it’s impossible to supervise a toddler 24/7; that a multi-layered approach to water safety is vital because accidents can happen unexpectedly and because children are unpredictable. But my comments were shot down in a tirade of ‘it’s our duty to keep our little ones safe’.

Sigh. It is our duty to keep our little ones safe. Don’t I know it. And, like most of us,  I think I do a pretty good job. But recognising our vulnerability is the first step to ensuring our children are as safe as they can be.

People who make self-righteous comments that are founded in ignorance, raise my hackles. It makes me feel very protective towards my friends who have lost children.

But I think I know why these women say insensitive things. I do believe such comments come from a place of fear. If you can explain away the loss of someone else’s child, you can convince yourself that it couldn’t happen to you. I understand that, I’ve thought that.

But the ‘it couldn’t happen to me’ attitude not only demonstrates a lack of empathy, it’s dangerous. Do you think most people who lost children in terrible accidents ever imagined it could happen to them? Hardly.

Believing it can happen to you, can cost you your innocence. It certainly makes the world feel like a scarier place. But it just might make your children safer. And that’s really all mothers who have been there and experienced the lifelong grief of loss want; to make sure you never have to walk a mile in their shoes.

Jodie Gunders is a writer and communicator and former ABC journalist (1999 – 2010)


Do you think we are too quick to judge people these days?