Understanding Survivor Guilt

Guilt.  We have talked about it from a lot of different angles around here.  We have talked about the shoulda, woulda, couldas.  We have talked about regret, about guilt after an overdose death, and about how to find self-forgiveness when we are grieving.  Just when you thought there was no way we could keep talking about it, last week we got an email asking about another aspect of guilt: survivor guilt.  You ask, we answer, so today we are bringing you a post breaking down the ins and outs of survivor guilt.  We promise this will be the last post on guilt (okay, maybe not the last post on guilt forever, but at least for at least a month or two).   Oh, and if you clicked on this post because you were confused and thought we were talking about LeBron James’ show Survivor’s Remorse, sorry to disappoint.   But don’t worry, reddit has your back.

Okay, so, survivor guilt.  This is a complicated topic, so I am going to give you a quick outline of where we are going with this post.  First, what the heck is survivor guilt?  Next, what are some circumstances when survivors’ guilt is common and what does it look like?  Finally, what do you DO about survivors’ guilt?

What the Heck is Survivors’ Guilt?

On a basic level survivor guilt is exactly what it sounds like: a sense of deep guilt that comes when one survives something.  If you have heard of survivor guilt before what likely comes to mind is survivors of wars, natural disasters or other traumas.  Survivor guilt was actually first documented and discussed after the Holocaust and what has become clear in the decades that have followed is that survivors’ guilt is far more common than was initially understood.  Survivor guilt was previously a diagnosis in the DSM, but was removed and now is a symptom of PTSD.  That said, one can experience survivor guilt independent of a PTSD diagnosis.

What makes survivor guilt especially complex is that the experience varies dramatically for each individual.  Whether a person experiences survivor guilt, its duration and its intensity all vary from person to person.   But the underlying feelings are similar: feeling guilt that you survived when someone else died and that you do not deserve to live when another person did not.  In some cases this includes feeling you could have done more to save another person, in other cases it is feeling guilt that another person died saving you (a circumstance recently covered in the media after the Colorado movie theater shooting, where three men died protecting their girlfriends).

So when might one experience survivor guilt?

Some of the familiar circumstances one experience survivor guilt are:

After surviving war
Surviving an accident
Surviving natural disaster
Surviving an act of violence

Some less-discussed circumstances that can trigger survivor guilt are:

After surviving an illness that is fatal for others
After a fellow drug-user dies of an overdose
When a parent dies from complications of childbirth
After receiving an organ transplant
After causing an accident in which others died
Guilt for not being present at the time of an accident to potentially save the person who died.
When a child dies before a parent
Death of a sibling, especially in the case of an illness

As with so many types of guilt that arise in grief, some survivor guilt is rational and some is not.  There are some circumstances in which our action (or lack of action) did impact the death of another.  In these cases there is a rational source of the guilt.  It is terrible, it can be debilitating, but it in some ways makes sense to other people.  In other cases our guilt isn’t tied to something we did or didn’t do.  Instead a person feels guilt that they could or should have done something, even when logically and rationally nothing they did impacted the death.  Though it seems we should be able to use logic to address this guilt, we often cannot.  As some theorists have suggested, this may be because it is preferable to blame ourselves for things outside our control than accept that there are situations over which we are completely helpless.  Regardless of the reason, when our survivor guilt is not rational that is when people will tend to minimize the guilt, just telling you not to feel guilty, or that you shouldn’t feel guilty.

One of the significant questions that can plague someone experiencing survivor guilt is ‘why?’.  This can take the form of asking why this happened but also, ‘why me’?  So many experiencing survivor guilt struggle to understand why they survived and others did not.  It is common to feel that one was not worthy of survival.  Additionally, as someone feels relief and appreciation for their survival, they often simultaneously feel guilt and shame for having those feelings when others did not survive.

One important thing to remember is, rational or irrational, survivor guilt is normal.  In and of itself it isn’t a sign of unhealthy grief, despite the fact that some people will make you feel like it isn’t okay to feel guilt.  That said, sometimes survivor guilt doesn’t begin to resolve naturally over time.  Sometimes it becomes overwhelming or obsessive, the guilt thoughts become so intrusive that you can’t function.  Then, of course, it is important to get help.  So, the question is: what can you do?

  • Accept what you are feeling. Guilt is a stigmatized emotion, as people can make us feel that it is wrong to feel guilty.  Keep in mind that guilt is not, on its own, a problem. It is a natural feeling that needs to be acknowledged, accepted and processed.
  • Know you’re not alone. Survivor guilt is much more common than people realize.  Finding a support group or other space to connect with others experiencing similar feelings can be very helpful in sharing feelings and feeling less isolated.
  • Remember that your relief and appreciation for your survival can co-exist with your grief for those who died. Celebrating your own survival does not in any way diminish your grief for those who did not survive.
  • Grieve those who died. In some cases, those who died are not people you knew personally or knew well.  This does not mean you cannot take space to mourn those who died in a way that is personal and meaningful for you.
  • Do something with your guilt.  Whether rational or irrational, you can use your guilt to help others.  What you do may come out of things you have learned. Whether it is educating others so they can avoid the mistakes you feel guilty about, raising awareness about causes of death (anything from heart disease to substance abuse to suicide), or simply encouraging others to talk with their family about end of life wishes, you can use many guilt experiences to help others.
  • Don’t get stuck on the ‘whys’.  Like a small child can’t stop asking ‘why’, when events like this happen we often fixate the ‘why’.  If there is a ‘why’, we can’t know what it is no matter how long we obsess about the question.  Difficult as it it, try to let go of asking the ‘why’ question and focus on the meaning you can create from your survival.  Whether it is big or small, seek the ways you will create something from this second chance.
  • Check out our other posts on guilt. I linked to them up in the first paragraph, but if you skipped right over them this might be a good time to jump back up and read our posts on dealing with grief in general.  Though survivor guilt is unique, it shares features with other types of guilt that might be helpful.
  • Embrace life.  Cheesy, I know.  But in spite of your feelings of guilt it is important to enjoy the life you have been given.  In the depths of guilt this can be hard, but it can also be an extremely helpful part of digging out of that hole by feeling you are valuing the gift you were give.
  • Talk to a counselor.  If you are still struggling with survivor guilt it may be time to get some professional help.  Look for a counselor in your area.  A counselor with experience in trauma may be an especially good fit, as they likely have experience with this type of guilt.

Dealt with survivor guilt?  Leave a comment!  And don’t forget to subscribe to get all our posts to your email.

April 12, 2017

25 responses on "Understanding Survivor Guilt"

  1. Thank-you so much for this article. I was hoping to find some insight into something I strongly feel is connected to a particular type of survivor’s guilt that comes when someone else dies saving your life. Being a big fan of Sherlock, I watched the latest episodes and they had a rather personal flavour to them. My husband died so that I could live…although it wasn’t this them in the new series that set me off, but something Sherlock said in the aftermath, “In saving my life she conferred a value upon it. It is a currency I do not know how to spend.” This hit the nail on the head for me and the themes of what I’ve personally been exploring on why I just haven’t been able to move forward.
    I think it is really important to acknowledge that when another human being values your life above their own, it is not just survivor guilt but a deeper contemplation in understanding how little value we place upon ourselves.
    You think, how could you possibly think I am more valuable in this world than you? How am I to live in the face of this high value you’ve conferred upon me? I am nothing, yet you’ve made me into everything. How on earth do I be that? Live that? Do that?
    I don’t really have an answer to this other than what I’ve already been doing. Live life as fully as possible, achieve the things you set out to do to the best of your ability, cultivate joy in every living breathing moment and honour their gift to you in the best ways you know how.
    I think for the moment, that just receiving the revelation that the self-saboteur which has been lurking within has been fuelled by this thought is enough to move forward, but I think this is where many of us need a forum for thoughts…
    I have such deep reverence for what my husband did for me, but no idea how to live this gift.

  2. On 1/24/14 my older sister, my only sibling was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) After 5 months in the Hosp and fighting the beast, horrible chemo, and several very close calls with death… she was sent home. She was told our was gone, she had won the battle. Then a few short months later it was back. At that point here only hope was a stem cell transplant… I had been living in the American Cancer Society facility with her… As her full time care giver for awhile. I was the only 100% match for her… the next closest was 91%. Of course I fully agreed to whatever was needed to save her life. On May 26th we did the stem cell transplant… My body made 3-4 times the stem cells she needed.. and they gave all of them to her! She really started improving… After a short recovery period my sisters counts began going up! We had to stay an additional 100 days post transplant at the ACS LODGE in Kansas City… This whole time neither of us were with our children, or for me my husband… But all agreed we were where we needed to be to save my sisters life! So day 100 comes, and she is cleared to go home!! We pack up 10 months worth of items in my Pilot, and I took her to her home… Then I drove 3 states back to my husband, daughters, and grandchildren! All was good for six weeks… Then wee for the news that the beast was back! So back I went to KC, back she went to KC, and again we settled into the ACS Lodge… The only hope at this time was a round of chemo, and a transplant of my lymphocytes… Again I was the closest and best match that she had. We did the lymphocyte transplant on 12/19/15…my sister finally left the hospital in April of 2015… after we were told that AML tumors had formed in her esophagus, and the top chamber of her right lung. So then I went back to her, and was there to hold her hand and tell her I was so sorry that my stem cells, and lymphocytes didn’t work, I was there to tell her I would take care of her son, and granddaughter, and our mom. I was there to tell her it was ok to let go. I have been lost and devastated since May 21, 2016. I have been overwhelmed with taking care of arrangements, comforting her son, connecting with her granddaughter, and now helping care for our mom…. all whole trying to get my get back under me and reconnect with my family who I basically left for 11 months! (Although they were very loving and supportive) However, I have been told that I am suffering from survivors guilt… but haven’t been told what to do… This article made me see that others do go through this…. I just don’t know anyone else who has been where I am. It sucks, and sadly see no end in sight!

  3. I feel guilty bc I should of killed myself a long time ago

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      If you are considering hurting yourself please seek help right away! You can walk into any emergency room or call 911 (if you are in the US). You can also call the suicide hotline in the US at 18002738255 or in the UK at 44 (0) 8457 90 90 90. If you are elsewhere just google suicide hotline and your country name. Feeling hopeless after a death us common, but with time and support I promise you will find ways to cope. Many on this site have been exactly where you are, feeling there is no hope. Somehow though,people manage to move forward- one day at a time. If you are experiencing survivor guilt that is contributing to your thoughts of suicide, please know it’s common for people who are grieving to try and make sense of the senseless by asking “why?” or by trying to make sense of the death by placing blame and responsibility. Unfortunately, this often leads to a sense of self-blame and the feeling that, in one way or another, we should be punished or do penance for our actions, whatever they may have been, that led up to a loved one’s death. I understand that you may not agree with me right now, however I feel that I can say without a doubt that you dying will in no way make up for any guilt you may be feeling. It will not help the death to make any more sense, it will not change anything, and it will only be a second terrible tragedy. Please reach out to one of the resources above right away. We do our best to monitor comments and emails quickly, but please remember 911, and ER, or a suicide hotline will be the quickest and most direct way to get help.

  4. I feel guilty b

  5. I am finally learning to deal with my survivor guilt after being attacked with my sister when I was 6. Intellectually I knew about it but emotionally I was stuck. It had stopped me from enjoying intimacy with my husband for 18 years. And also made me a crazy anxious mother. I haven’t been able to turn off my amygdula for years. I am working on it now and it’s hard work. I think I am getting better. I allow my self to grieve and my husband and my psychologist are my witnesses and acknowledge my grief that was trivialised and ignored and repressed when I was a child (I repressed it to protect myself). I am able to love my husband and children much better. I am still amazed that just one terrible moment can affect you so completely. Although neither of my parents had the capacity to nurture us which also compounds the issue.

  6. This is something I still struggle with even after all these years. My BFF Matthew was born with Congenital Heart Disease, so was I… yet here I am 22 yrs old, a university student and future teacher stronger and healthier than ever and he died a long time ago when we were still kids. What’s more, I wasn’t there for him, I couldn’t visit him in the hospital or say goodbye or tell him how much I love him and I know that the circumstances surrounding that were beyond my control, but even so I’ve always felt like I really let him down and that a real friend wouldn’t have let anything stand in her way. I also sometimes wish I was the one who got sick that summer instead of him. Not that I wanted to die, but I knew even then that I was in a somewhat better position to survive what he did not so I wish I could’ve taken his place.

  7. I survived a 4 wheeler accident when I was 10 but my friend died. We were actually trapped under the 4 wheeler together for a while but she was unconscious. My parents tried to get me to go to counseling but I’d already picked up the mentality that “someone else has it worse”. Still trying to sort through everything 15 years later. This article was very helpful, so thank you.

  8. Any suggestions on how I can help a loved one deal with his survivor guilt that he’s been carrying around for many, many years. He punishes himself by not allowing himself to really live life.

  9. I think Richard, my daughter’s godfather, has this although he disagrees because he thinks survivor’s guilt stops you from living your life. I don’t think it means that.
    He saw both his sergeants die in combat on the same day, almost simultaneously and what he saw was hostile. He calls the one sergeant his “Nam brother.” His blood-related sibling didn’t understand that and Richard refused to enlighten him. The conversation started when Robert, his brother because of DNA, said “I don’t think you should have feelings of the same intensity for this Bill character as you do me. I’m your brother, you should care about me more than him.”
    Richard replied “Bill was my Nam brother,” which displeased Robert and he asked “what’s that mean?” Richard said never mind because he didn’t want to argue with his brother, who appears to like the activity. Or one would get the impression he does because he’s always in verbal conflict with someone.
    Richard refuses to discuss anything that happened to him in the war so I have no idea how he processes what he saw or went through, although I’m starting to understand why he doesn’t talk about the war; if people in his age range are so hostilely against the war, and some of them act as if they hate the people who were sent there, it would make me not want to discuss it either.
    He has the most open heart I’ve ever seen; his 15 y.o daughter is like him but less controlled about it than he is. I trust him completely with my daughter. I can’t figure out why some people in his age group act so strange about it when they find out he’s a veteran of that war. Sometimes it actually upsets me that they seem to be so judgmental about it. I don’t think the way some people act about it could possibly make it easier to deal with survivor’s guilt.

  10. My boyfriend and I broke up as his depression and alcohol abuse worsened. I ended the relationship to protect myself. Months later, he ended his life. I never imagined that one of us might not survive it. I feel horrible that I wasn’t there for him at his worst. Working through this grief and regret has been immeasurably hard and seems endless.

    • Sorry to hear about this. I know the feeling. My boyfriend just committed suicide on 2 Feb 2016. We argued about his extreme behavior but I had no idea what he was really struggling with. He asked me to give him one more chance and I said no. He stood up and shot himself right in front of me. I feel unbelievable guilt and so many regrets. The last four weeks have been absolute torture. I keep hearing it’s not my fault but that doesn’t help.

  11. I lost my sister February 25,2015 and my 34 yrs old son April 1, 2015. 37 days apart. My son left three young sons behind and his wife. It’s not a natural order to lay a child to rest. 7 months have passed and there are days my tears come….keep coming…no option. Unbelieveable anguish. Its only natural that I go first. I feel fractured. Broke. There are many things to be thankful for. But, my struggle is vast. I must seek my Lord. There I will find comfort. True test of my faith.

  12. My aunt was killed 9-29-2015 at 7:30am on a Tuesday, stabbed to death in her front yard why neighbors and passers-by watch. My aunt lived in fear for many years this man made her life a living hell, but she only told us what she wanted us to know. We all feel guilty bc we should have seen the signs she drank everyday and seemed anxious all the time. As we cleaned her house after the funeral I found all types of depression meds and letters, this broke my heart bc my aunt lived a nightmare. The man stalked her, bear her, threaten her until she said enough is enough and then he took her life. The neighborhood failed us and law enforcement failed us this man had so many criminal charges against him but was still allowed his freedom.

  13. Today (November 3rd, 2015) would have been my brother, my only sibling’s, 53rd birthday AND my parent’s 54th Anniversary (yes, he was born at exactly 6:08pm on my parent’s 1st. Anniversary at exactly the same minute a year later than they had said their vows at 6:08pm 11/3/61) and I will turn 52 exactly 2 weeks from today which made me exactly two weeks and 1 year younger than him…I was expected to be born on their 2nd Anniversary and was always informed that I was the “rebel” even then as I held out for two weeks so as to have “my own” birthday….on 11/17/63. My other and I are now alone, having lost my father to Lung Cancer two weeks before his 74th birthday, 07/14/8, and then losing Mike, my brother very unexpectedly and suddenly from a “Sudden Cardiac Death” 9 days after my Mother’s last birthday (02/26/15) after he came home from work and laid down for a nap. That evening, when I got home from work I was sitting on the couch with our three dogs, mother was making dinner and my cell phone rang from my brother’s cell phone, but when I answered it, it was not him, or my sister-In-Law…it was her sister, who told me that Mike had a heart attack, and the next words that I will NEVER forget “…and it doesn’t look good”… I did not know he was already dead…I tried to stop my panic, but I told my mother and called my Aunt Barbara, who came and got us to drive to their house, thinking we would follow to the hospital, so before she got there, I called again to see if he was gone in the ambulance, but one of her brother’s answered the phone and said “nah, he didn’t make it”… I felt as if my heart stopped with his….Time has gone on, it’s been over 8 months now…I am trying to make sense of the inevitable “WHY”…him, not me? He had never even really been sick, never had a surgery in his life…loved life… loved his wife, his mother, his children and grandchildren, me…(I hope)… and I loved him so very much! Do I have “Survivor’s Guilt”… oh Yes…but I am trying to move on…mostly I just get through the days, but the “First Year” is HELL! Never today, Happy Birthday to the Greatest Brother in the World!!!! I miss you! Michael K. Lewis…11/03/62 – 02/6/15. Until I see you again…and to my Father also… Paul K. Lewis… 07/28/34 – 07/14/08.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Oh Jetta, I am so sorry for all you have been through. It sounds like your brother was truly an amazing man, and clearly you are keeping that memory alive. I wish I had answers for the ‘why’ but of course I don’t. I have had similar thoughts myself many times in my own grief and the only words of wisdom I can offer are that when there is no answer sometimes you have to embrace the idea of creating your own ‘why’ – deciding what you can and will do to create meaning. I hope you find some support on this site and ideas for coping.

  14. I have a serious case of survivor’s guilt. My youngest son was murdered at age 24. I know all parents that lose a child, no matter what the circumstances, must feel this way. It goes against the natural order of things. Your not supposed to outlive your child.

  15. Deanna Clark WillinghamNovember 2, 2015 at 9:02 pmReply

    i also suffer from survivor guilt, although my husband was ill for years. I think that if I had just recognized the symtoms a little sooner, argued a little more with the Dr. or something, he woud still be with us. That said, he was ready to go and had quit taking some meds and hid some other things from me. While I grieve I also had to respect his wishes after over 30 years of declining health.
    I appreciate this blog so much, I have learned so much here.

    • Profile photo of Litsa Williams

      Deanna, I am so sorry for all you have been through – not just his death, but the years of illness and declining health, which themselves can take a toll. I am so glad you found our site and have found it helpful.

      • Hi I have survivors guilt and just didn’t pay attention to the diagnosis..My husband of 18 yrs been together for a total of 24 yrs died from cancer….I realize it has affected every aspect of my life and my loved ones..

  16. For me, survivor’s guilt had to do with feeling that somehow I benefited from my loved ones’ passing. When my husband passed away, I started to receive a small annuity from his job. When my mom passed, I paid her boyfriend money I used to give my mom every month for a little over a year because I didn’t want to feel like something got easier for me because she was gone. My parents and husband did so much for me, gave me everything and I just feel so grateful to them, and at the same time so, I don’t know, like I’m here and they aren’t when I wouldn’t have had too much of anything without all that they have done for me. It’s hard not to even be able to let them know that. This might be a slightly different take on survivor’s guilt and that is why I posted because I wondered if anybody else has experienced this. I have also experienced the more typical, perhaps, survivor’s guilt , as well. When my husband died of cancer, I often wondered…he was only 52 and it made me feel so badly for him that his life was cut short. I had feelings of why him? Why not me? Feelings of it not being fair that died and will miss so many things that were yet to be experienced, especially with our children. Sometimes, at family gatherings with our kids, I feel guilty because I am experiencing all the things I know he would want to be a part of but can’t. I just feel like I ended up with everything and he ended up with so little.

  17. My husband got type 1 diabetes in 2001 as a result of autoimmune disease. I had to constantly remind him to check his blood and take his insulin or help him when his sugar levels dropped. He would get mad at me a lot, reminding me I’m not his mother, etc. 2 years ago we went camping, he apparently didn’t take any insulin for several days and died the day after we returned while I was at work. I still blame myself for letting my guard down, not paying attention to his health. I know it’s not my fault, but if only I had been a little more vigilant, or hadn’t gone to work that day… Maybe he’d still be here. I understand the Survivor Guilt. It sucks.

  18. Thank you so much for this well organized breakdown of Survivors Guilt.
    We see a lot of this in questions to our “Ask Dr. Niemeyer” column. I will forward this on to those it can help. Bravo! Lisa

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