- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2010

Among parental nightmares, forgetting one’s child in a hot car may be the most monstrous. Already this year, at least 22 sets of grieving parents have taken up their crosses of pain. The tally includes a Loudoun County father who forgot to take his newly adopted son to day care and went to work instead. The father was so distraught he was hospitalized for days after the child’s death.

How does one survive such a catastrophe? How does a marriage stay intact? If these kinds of deaths are preventable, what can we do?

Safety advocates begin by begging other adults to show mercy, and not judge.

Parents who accidentally leave their children in cars are “not stupid,” says Janette Fennell, founder of www.kidsandcars.org, which monitors all kinds of fatal nontraffic accidents involving children.

Most are loving, caring parents who also are multitasking, under stress and functioning without a lot of sleep, she says. Their minds and memories play tricks on them — instead of going to day care or grandma’s house (which is not in their routine), they are distracted by a phone call or a traffic jam, and they go on autopilot, which is to get to work.

Listen to a college professor who in August 2003 was supposed to take his 10-month-old son, born after in-vitro fertilization, to day care. Instead, he drove to work, parked the car and went into the office.

“At your greatest moment of need, I failed you horrifically,” the professor said at the child’s eulogy. “Worst of all, I have no explanation for what I have done. I cannot understand how I, who loved you more than the air I breathed, who would have gladly given my life for you, could have done such a thing.”

“There’s no punishment that anybody walking this planet could give me that could ever compare to how I feel,” Todd Costello told an Ohio newspaper not long after he left his 9-month-old son, Tyler, in his car outside his office.

How does one recover from such a tragedy? The simple answer is by enduring one miserable step after another until time blunts the pain.

July 29 was the sixth anniversary of Tyler’s death.

“Some days, I guess, it’s surprising that we survived it as well as we survived it,” Mr. Costello told me recently. “To think that it’s been six years and everything we started with — court matters, police matters, our own bouts of depression, trying to go through counseling, all those things seemed like huge mountain tasks that were ahead of us.”

Getting through it “started with our faith, it started with the foundation of our marriage. It was strongly supported by our desire to be a good parent to our older daughter,” who was then 4 years old, he said. A strong support network — “your nuclear family, your friends from work, your friends from church, your neighbors” — also helped, plus “a whole list of strangers and people who felt compelled to reach out and find us and send us an encouraging word.”

But there’s no glossing over the agony of the process.

Hearing about how the brain works, and how good, intelligent people can be distracted is all well and good, Mr. Costello said. “But some days, it just gnaws at me. And it’s going to gnaw at this [other] father just as much.

“Internally, he is angry. He feels guilty. He doesn’t have any answers,” Mr. Costello said, his voice choking up.

Cheryl Wetzstein is on medical leave. This column originally ran Aug. 3, 2008, and the date references have not been changed. In the first six months of 2010, at least 20 children have died of hyperthermia, according to San Francisco State University professor Jan Null.

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