"Blame can shatter people's lives when they're already in the most shattered moment they'll ever experience," Melissa Fenton tells PEOPLE
Within minutes of reading the tragic news that 2-year-old Lane Graves had been snatched by an alligator at a Disney resort, Melissa Fenton was overwhelmed by comments from strangers blaming the boy’s parents.
“There were accusations immediately,” Fenton tells PEOPLE. “There were comments on every news page asking, ‘Where were the parents?’ ‘How did they not read the signage?’ ”
On the heels of a massive backlash against the mother whose son fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo last month (which resulted in the gorilla being shot dead), Fenton says this latest onslaught felt like the final straw.
“I’m also a mom trying to raise kids in a social media world that has become very hateful and full of perfect people and full of perfect parents eager to blame,” the mother of four from Dade City, Florida, says. “When I saw what people were saying about these parents, I just got to the point where I had had enough.”
Fenton wrote a blog and Facebook post begging readers to “stop blaming and shaming other parents” in the wake of unthinkable tragic accidents.
In her impassioned post, Fenton addressed what she sees as “a nation of blamers and shamers” and asked them to imagine delivering their accusations against grieving parents in person.
“At the funeral for this 2-year-boy who died in front of his parents, can you do me a favor? Can you walk up to the mother and say the words that you just typed out last week? Can you?” she asked.
“Can you greet her, hug her, shake the father s hand and then say, ‘Who was watching that little boy? You should have known better. I would never let that happen to MY child,’ ” her post continued.
“Can you do that for me? I mean, you felt those words so deeply in your heart and soul that you typed them for a million people to read.”
“Certainly, you can say it straight to the faces of the people you meant it for, right?”
Within days, the post reached 35 million people. Fenton was inundated with messages from parents, thanking her for speaking out.
“I’ve lost count of the messages from parents who have had a loss or an accident and felt as though they were living under a veil of blame and shame,” she says. “I’m trying to respond to each one to tell them that they are not alone.”
“These horrific nightmare scenarios can happen to anybody at any second. No parent is immune from the unthinkable and these parents who are in their darkest hours need our compassion, not our accusations,” she continues.
“It’s possible that these accusatory remarks come from a place of fear,” Fenton says. “I can see how people need an answer to help them feel safe, I can see how people want some kind of explanation to a freak accident but there are no explanations.”
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Fenton says she has been deeply moved by the messages she has received from people who initially cast blame on the parents but reconsidered their actions thanks to her words.
“These people have finally realized that blame can shatter people’s lives when they’re already in the most shattered moment they’ll ever experience,” she says.
Still, she knows she can’t change everyone’s mind.
“We can never change everybody, and the people who want to blame are always going to be out there,” she says. “But if more people stood up and defended the parents after a tragic accident like this, it might be easier for others to see they deserve our compassion.”
An official donation page has been set up for the Graves family.