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 and 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 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 guilty 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 guilty 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 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. In other cases, the guilt isn’t tied to something a person did or didn’t do. Instead, the person feels guilty about what they perceive they could or should have done.This kind of guilt often defies all logic. Some theorists have suggested that this may be because people would prefer to blame themselves for things outside their control than to accept that they are helpless.  Also worth noting, when people believe your survivor guilt isn’t rational, they may try to minimize it by telling you not to feel guilty which can be kind of frustrating.

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 guilty.  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 given.
  • 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.

October 4, 2017

54 responses on "Understanding Survivor Guilt"

  1. im sad as fuck now fuck you guys

  2. When I was 14 years old, I had the opportunity to leave my urban neighborhood of Queens and attend high school in an affluent suburb of Connecticut. While I was receiving the best education, my friends back home weren’t being steered in the right direction by their guidance counselor system. The education they received was subpar and they told me stories of not even being allowed to take textbooks home. I managed to graduated high school on time, my friends got in trouble with the law, had to get GED’s and hardly ever graduated on time. A career was an after thought. Many worked late hours in high school to help their family with bills. What was this like for them? Imagine if they had the opportunity to just focus on school. I went on the graduate from one of the most prestigious universities in Connecticut. I started my pretty salaries job shortly after graduation. Coming back home, there is now a weird gap between me and my friends. Why is that happening? I constantly find myself talking to my friends to propel them to the level I’m currently at. The conversation is different. Everyone is unhappy and I’m constantly doing things to make up for my survivors guilt. Sometimes I think If I stayed around, I could’ve made all their lives better.

  3. I have been suffering from survivor’s guilt as a part of my PTSD for twenty years, and depression and anxiety all my life. I survived an abusive family, poverty, and a host of circumstances that were out of my control, which has left me battling a pervasive feeling of helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness for all of my 65 years. I have also been trying to understand this misery in a way that I can salvage what is left of my life . This article and all of the comments have helped more than years of counseling. It is only lately that I have realized that most counselors are not equipped to help with these complicated problems. Only a counselor with a specialty in PTSD or survivor’s guilt or an associated field is qualified to help, and then only if their goal is helping the patient leave counseling, rather than seeing patients as merely a steady revenue stream. I have also noticed that women tend to be a majority of the sufferers, and that in itself illuminates a systemic pathology where women are programmed to nurture to such a high standard, that they inevitably “fail”, and then having “failed”, are programmed to punish themselves until the end of time. Each person’s story here shows how a confluence of circumstances and events can redirect any life onto a dead end street of misery and pain. I feel for everyone who has posted here. It makes me feel less alone.

  4. On august 28th 1988 i was 20 years and stationed in Kaiserslautern Germany! With nothing to do that day we decided to head to the Flutag on Ramstein AFB! A decision that has haunted and tormented me for now 29 years! That day an Italian fighter jet pilot made an unfortunate critical error in the air and slammed his plane into the front of another in his formation! I won’t and well cannot go into great detail however the result was catastrophic! Three pilots were killed and 67 people on the ground lost their lives as well! 30 of them instantly when part of a burning plane smashed into them while we were all on the flight line! I was with that group and how I survived I have no idea! I believe the fact that I was standing about 20 feet from a Mo gas tanker is what saved my life because the burning plane impacted that as well and that caused me to be blown about thirty feet in the opposite direction! That day changed my life forever! I believe my life was never what it could’ve been because of it! I’ve spent thirty years shoving guilt, horror fear and all emotions down so far that it’s actually painful! It made me a cold emotionless person! I’ve have never been able to have a very successful relationship with anyone because I can’t show emotion or really even feel it! It was a miracle I had my daughter and was able to love her like I did and raise her well! I never got any counseling or help or anything after that day! I got up the next day numb and in denial and reported for Work call formation as normal! I spent 10 years suffering from what? I didn’t even know! In 98 when I felt like I was having I guess a break down I went to a specialist who said oh yep u have PTSD. Here take these pills! Slapped me on the back and said good luck! That was it! My guilt causes me to see those people who died horrifically and later died suffering
    From the horrible injuries, every single day of my life! The only reason I can even type this small bit of about the incident is due to my amazing therapist that I have just this year been able to have! I know part of my suffering is not just crowds and chaos loud starling noises fireworks the list goes on and on but my overwhelming sense of paralyzing guilt that I walked away without being able to save those people from that horrible day! I am learning the fundamentals of this from which i suffer! It’s helping me face it! It’s the slowest process of anything I’ve ever done! For months I’ve been trying to write a letter to the victims! Why can’t I get farther then just writing the date? I don’t even know how to start the letter! I can’t write, dear dead people, that’s horrible ! Can anyone give me any advice whatsoever? Even if it’s just the opening sentence! I know I have to do this and I’m trying so hard to face all of this! I’m scare and I feel worthless because I should’ve most certainly died that day! I feel like a part of me did die that day! Sometimes I wish I had died that day because suffering like I have for thirty years and the effect it’s had on every aspect of my life has been horrible! Thank you to all that takes the time to read this! I can’t go any further besides I’m sure I’ve written more then I should’ve! Thank you , Katie

  5. My best friend committed suicide two years, two months and six days today. I miss her everyday and I wish I had been there to save her. I had spoken to her that night and she had promised not to do anything rash until we saw each other the next day. I kept calling when morning came to no avail. Only to be the one to name her as the only one missing when everyone was still guessing. I was there for everyone who cried in regret and listened to thier what ifs. Her suicide affected me greatly as dealing with survivors guilt has changed me not just socially but in every perspective of the person I am and who I will be. I still see her in the little things, I see her dancing in the rain or picking up a bird feather. I hear her voice in the wind and see her swimming amongst the waves. I can not help but feel like she deserved to live and I did not as we were facing the same problems in life. I could have easily been her. I have listened too so many people tell me I could not have saved her when I know in my heart that I could have talked her off the ledge.

  6. For eight years I have been a 24/7 caregiver for my husband who has Lewy Body Dementia. His doctor told me that my husband is in the end stages of dementia because he needs help with every aspect of daily living…bathing, dressing, eating, teeth brushing, shaving, hair combing, etc. I recently placed him in a care center which has been extremely hard for me. I keep thinking this is the wrong decision, because I know can take better care of him than the care center can. He is always asking to come home and the center has told me he worries about me and keeps wanting to call me..but they have tried to redirect and help him focus on other things to help him acclimate better. Because of the roller coaster ride type of dementia that Lewy’s is, my doctor has told me that I am in an endlessly looping grief cycle. She just told me at my last appointment that I am also suffering survivor’s guilt…because of my inability to let things be, to accept that my husband is slowing dying and it is not my fault. She said I need to start believing that putting him in a care center was best for my husband and for me. After reading your post…I now understand why she told me I am in survivor guilt mode. Now I need to learn how to navigate the in’s and out’s of this so that I can begin to heal.

  7. My Wife and I survived the Route 91 Shooting, we have put together a support page on Facebook for anyone struggling to cope. Talking about it and helping other will get us through it.

    https://m.facebook.com/groups/120515781952469?ref=bookmarks

  8. I think I am dealing with this. I was just in Vegas for the route 91 harvest festival with my cousin. We were at the festival both Friday and Saturday nights. We were at the Mandalay Bay at the club on Saturday night. We were right there.

    Sunday we decided at the last minute NOT to go to the concert but to instead walk around in some of the hotels. We were walking the strip when we saw cop car after cop car pass us by in the direction we were walking. We could feel that something wasn’t right after the 10th or 15th cop car.

    We made it back to our hotel just as the first twitter stories were being posted. We were crossing the street where the festival was 2.5 hours before the shooting happened. We were right there. We stood at our window facing the strip as we heard all the other stories of there being a shooter in this hotel and that hotel. Then we saw people running from the lobby in our hotel. We thought there must be gunfire right below us. We were shaking, hearts pounding.

    We spent hours watching the news and following social media. We were right there. We were supposed to be at that show. If my cousin hadn’t already seen Jason Aldean prior to this festival we would have been at that show.

    i can’t seem to stop crying. How could all these people die and be injured when I was fine? So many of those people probably deserved that less and would have had more to go back to than we did. How could we not be there to potentially help shield people or take a bullet somewhere for someone else. I know it hasn’t been long but I’m really struggling with it and I have never felt this way.

    I feel guilty for feeling this way which makes it worse. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to stop crying.

    • April I was in the hotel too. Can’t stop crying. We got evacuated to the basement. We were put in a room for 10 hours with just the news showing us. It was awful. I know what you’re feeling.

    • April, I’m so sorry for what you and everyone at the Route 91 Festival has been through over the last few days. It is devastating and heartbreaking and a million other things. I think it’s normal to feel what you’re feeling in response to this traumatic situation. Experiences like this, where innocent people are hurt or killed, violate all our assumptions about the world. It makes perfect sense that you would be asking WHY? I’m glad you are safe and I hope that with time you are able to find some peace.

    • April, I feel the same way. Thank you for writing about your experience. I, too, was at the concert Friday and Saturday. I never had intentions of being there Sunday, but it hits too close to home. I look at my wrist band, the photos from the days before, and the videos of the horror and I can’t stop myself from crying. Why Sunday? Why not Saturday? Or Friday? How did I get so lucky when so many other did not. Why did these innocent people face this terror and I didn’t? I brushed shoulders, I danced, I sang along, and enjoyed the festival with these innocent and incredible people. But why did I walk away without a scratch? And then I feel guilty for even feeling this way because I wasn’t there and did not see the horror. I’m just so confused on how to feel. Thank you for sharing your experience because I feel there are others who share the same.

      • Anne I am so glad you commented. It felt like I was the only one in my situation, even though I know so many thousands of people went and the majority of people are physically fine. It is an overwhelming, confusing, depressing feeling. I think anyone who bought tickets and had the 3 day pass will have some sort of mental trauma for so long regardless if they were there that night or not.

        I didn’t get out of bed until 12:30 today. I haven’t cried today but instead feel a type of depression I’ve never experienced before. I feel like a shell of a person. Then I just found out my best friends cousin was there and was shot. She didn’t make it. Her name was Angela Gomez. I feel like crawling in a hole and not being around anyone. I’ve heard each day gets better but it’s a slow process. I wish I could not go to work this week and take time but I can’t. How are you doing today, Anne?

    • hi April,
      Hope this comment finds you in a better state of mind and moving forward. I was also there this weekend in the crowd by the stage when the unimaginable happened. I can’t erase the images from my head, and I’ve been dwelling on the same question as everyone else since “why?”
      “why am I here, when so many others aren’t” seems to be on repeat in my mind.
      I was advised to speak to my doctor and he was able to refer me to local counseling . You should give it a try, this has been one traumatic experience for all of us. Talking to a professional could help us get back to our normal routines

      To you and everyone else who was affected by this tragic event, especially the families who lost someone they love. My deepest sympathies and condolences, I know there are no words that can take describe the pain and suffering your enduring over your loss. May the care and love of those around us provide comfort and peace to get us all through the days ahead.

    • My Wife and I survived the Route 91 Shooting, we have put together a support page on Facebook for anyone struggling to cope. Talking about it and helping other will get us through it.

    • April, I am going through all of the same thoughts. My best friends birthday was Friday and her dad lives in Henderson. We had plans with them Friday and Saturday. Sunday was open and we knew that the festival was going as it was 2 years ago when we were down there and listened to it from the strip. I skimmed the artist list for Sunday, but she didn’t want to leave the house, pool and hot tub. I have to reiterate the skim part of the story. I didn’t notice that Big and Rich were on the list. We’re big fans! Had I noticed that they were playing.. Well… we would have been in the festival. I was up at 4 am watching the news, crying. At 5 am our phones started to ring, first was her mom, next was mine… then they wouldn’t quit ringing with people back home knowing that we should have been there. I Facebook posted that we were ok. Now that I am home I am going through so many emotions. I had a doctor appointment already scheduled for today, and my doctor asked me if I went to the concert and I explained the story and how I feel now. He was the one that said that its survivors guilt. I just hung up on my dads wife because she told me that I have no reason to feel like this! I am going through the should’ve, would’ve, could’ve thoughts. I am wanting to know why it all happened to everyone who was hurt and gone…. Why did my circumstances turn right for me and my best friend but not for the other people….. I just wanted to let you know that you’re not alone!

      • Thank you for your comment. I hope you are part of the Facebook group. I still feel guilty for associating myself with real survivors but I’ve still been struggling. I’m now seeing a therapist too. I hope things are better for you

  9. I lost my wife, my two daughters, my home, and our 3 pets in the wildfires in Tennessee last year. I truly understand all of the comments I’ve read to this point, but I have come to a crossroads in my survivors guilt and I would appreciate any and all feedback.

    Our story.

    That night, we had no idea the fires were raging all around us. There were no warnings, no sirens, no text alerts. Nothing. Absolutely zero communication. My son, who was 15 at the time, and I decided to leave our home just to go see what was going on to see if we needed to evacuate. We lived up in the mountains and couldn’t see anything around us. So we drove all the way down our mountain and nothing was on fire. Nothing. Not a single leaf. We got to the bottom and turned on to the main road going in and out of town. A few miles later we ended up stuck in traffic. We didn’t know why at the time, but it was because that part of town was already on fire. By this point it had maybe been 15-20 minutes since we had left home. My phone rang. My wife said “there are flames across the street. What do I do?” I told her to call 911. I said “I love you”. She said “I love you, too”. That was the last time we spoke.

    I don’t know how much time passed in between that phone call and the time we finally made it back to the base of our mountain, but once I made it back, I look up and all I could see was red. I felt helpless. But I had to do something. I had to get to them.

    So I went up. I drove through a wildfire. I had to get to them. Power lines, trees, winds, the howling and the rage of the fire consumed us. It was about a mile or two from the base of the mountain to our house, and as I turned the corner and saw the first house on our street covered in flames, I think that was the first moment where the true fear and panic set in. There were no fire trucks. No ambulances. Just red. Hell. An inferno. We couldn’t see five feet in front of us. Finally, I reached our home. Directly before my driveway was a massive tree across the road. I couldn’t go any further. I looked up and our house was completely engulfed. I got out in the middle of the road and screamed her name. Over and over and over. The howl was so loud I could barely hear myself screaming. Nothing. I heard in the distance, or so I thought, a very faint whisper. Come to find out it was my son screaming at the top of his lungs in the van parked right next to me. The fire was so loud I could barely hear him. He was screaming “Dad, we are going to die”.

    I don’t remember anything after that. I don’t know how we made it back down. I was numb. All I remember is holding the steering wheel with one hand and my sons arm with the other. We drove to the next town over and went to a shelter. At that shelter we were told “They went door to door and got everyone out”. That ended up being a lie. But at the time we had no idea what was going on, so we waited there to reunite with them. We assumed they were just at a different shelter. We were wrong.

    They were found six days later about a half mile from our home in another cabin. They were found together holding each other. That home burned down, too, along with nearly 2,500 other structures around it.

    Now I’m sure by reading all of this so far that you already know where my survivors guilt comes from. It comes from us leaving that night to go see what was going on, right? Sort of. But there’s more.

    Ive never told this whole part of the story publicly, so allow me to give you a little background information.

    My wife was molested as a child by her stepfather. As an adult, she suffered from PTSD, bipolar disorder, social anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder, and chronic depression. She was unable to work but did all she could do to function. After the fire, a video we made two years earlier went viral. In it, she shared her story of abuse.

    In the video she blamed her mother for a lot of her abuse. She never protected her. She claimed that when she told her mom she was being touched, her mom dismissed it. A big part of her trauma was the helplessness and abandonment she felt for years of her childhood.

    Now that you know the backstory, here is the part I’ve never talked about.

    Well, once that video went viral, her mom saw it. My wife had always wondered if her mom ever saw the video. I don’t know if she ever saw it before the fire, but I do know she saw it after. She called my father and demanded her I take the video down. I refused. She called all the news stations that had shared it and demanded they take it down. They refused. And that is when, after everything we had already been through, the real hell began.

    Her mother began blasting me online. She accused me of “being the one who started the fire”. (The fire was actually set five days earlier in the National Park by two teenage boys playing with matches. The park let it burn and watched it spread for five days until it finally got completely out of control. By then, it was too late). She accused me of “leaving them in a burning home”. Again…nothing was on fire when we left that night. She accused me of “doing it for insurance money”. And the worst of all, she accused me of “intentionally leaving them there to die”.

    Now rationally I know none of this is true. But there were small groups of people over time that saw her accusations and assumed “if its on the internet, it must be true”. And to this day, once in a great while I’ll get wind of someone saying “he left them there”. And it brings me full circle back to hell.

    My survivors guilt has been horrible. But when you compound it to her mother saying these horrible lies about my son and I it makes it that much worse. I’ve never spoken about her mothers accusations publicly, because I feel by giving her the time of day I am allowing her to have too much power over my thoughts. But deep down inside it hurts. Bad. And it is taking its toll both on my health and my sanity.

    After the fire, I spent months in what I call “the darkness”. It is so dark. So lonely. I held a knife to my wrist several times. But every time it got that low I thought of my son. He needs me. I can’t do this to him. Weekly counseling, psychiatry appointments, and antidepressants didn’t curb the darkness. I had to do something to do something through this nightmare.

    So after asking God what to do (by the way, I spent months cursing Him, but He never left my side) I woke up one day and asked Him how to honor them. He told me I needed to create a foundation to help others experiencing child sexual abuse. So I did. If you log onto Facebook.com/thereedfoundation you can see our work so far. We are working with congress to pass what we have called “Constance’s Bill”, which creates a nationwide text alert number for children to use who are being abused. I also created a movement called #ShedTheShame™, which is a platform for adult survivors of child abuse to come forward and share their stories with others. Hundreds if not thousands of people have come forward since its inception, and every day I wake up I know my girls are proud for the work we are trying to do.

    But every day…every…single…day…I hear her mom in my head. “You left them there”. “You left them there”. “You left them there”.

    I know I can’t go any further in my healing until I get past this. But I don’t know how to do it or what to do. My therapist tells me to tell myself every day “I did all I could. It’s not my fault” but that is Impossible for me to say at times.

    I thank you for the opportunity to tell the story. I will pray for all of you as you journey through your own individual stories.

    If any of you would like to reach out to me personally, I can be reached at http://www.ConstancesStory.com, http://www.ShedTheShame.com, or I can be directly messaged through the foundation Facebook page, which I listed above.

    God bless all of you.

    Faith. Hope. Love.

  10. I just survived a major hurricane in Florida. Millions are without electricity and many have lost everything they once possessed. Some have lost their life. It was a harrowing week leading into the storm then during the storm and now it has been a week since the storm went through my hometown. As the power was being restored slowly, I began to feel some deep upset that my house was not yet restored. My career is in helping those less fortunate and I and my co-workers were all working full time while none of us had power. Then my power came on after 5 days of no electricity and little sleep. I noticed that my neighbors did not have power when I did and I felt a deep guilt and empathy for them. I realized that it was survivor guilty. I even thought about hiding that my power was restored.

    Sever people told me I shouldn’t feel this way, but I did. I teach emotional honesty to my clients so I held firm.I know my feelings and they are valid. I was validated by some understanding friends who also have survivor guilt following major hurricanes. I have reached out and connected with friends and good listening colleagues.

    My life is beginning to get n=back to normal. My routines are beginning to reshape. I feel like I have been in some altered state for 2 weeks now. Your blog has helped me personally and will also be a great help to my clients who have similar feelings. Thank you for writing this and publishing it. It is serving for great comfort in this difficult time.

  11. My aunt died because of an accident when she want to pick me up . I told her we should hurry up because I need to go somewhere. I guess she drove really fast and end up got an accident . I still remember I’m waiting for her but lastly I’m the one who went to the hospital and saw her in a white plastic bag and her body covered with blood. My aunt was like my second mother.

  12. I may suffer survivor’s guilt. I am a survivor of domestic violence as a child, however my younger sister committed suicide at 16 and my older sister died of a toxic overdose at 29 after living several years as a drug addict and alcoholic. I am now working in DV but think I may only be doing it to try and save my sisters… which obviously I cant do.

  13. My oldest daughter Elizabeth died in a car accident. She was only 8 years old. 2012, I literally died 3 times. I was in a medically induced coma and on life support for 2 weeks. I’m alive but why? My little girl didn’t really get the chance to put her mark on life. I gladly would have given up my life for hers. I DON’T understand.

  14. On June 7 2016 things changed. He wasn’t at work by 830 which was odd but not totally unusual. I sent him a text at 8:38. I know this because I haven’t been able to delete the text. No response. I asked the girls in the office if we should be worried. By 845 with no response and still not at work, I called his wife Kelly; who was visiting family in Montana. She didn’t answer and so I left a message. We said we would wait until 9 and if there was no response we would drive out to the farm to check on him. Kelly called and said he didn’t answer. I asked when was the last time she talked to him. She told me that morning around 730. I told her that Nadia and I were going to drive out to the farm just to make sure everything was ok. She said “call me when you get there.” She then gave me the code to their front door. As Nadia and I got into my car and began driving we were quiet. We got on the freeway and instinctively began looking along the sides both thinking that perhaps he had broken down. As we were heading east we passed the mall on the left and saw an accident. Nadia and I both said together, that looks like his car. We took the 16th St exit and began to head back the other way. The on ramp heading west was closed. We pulled into the ninja sushi parking lot and walked over to the police car that was blocking the freeway on ramp. We told the officer that we believed that was his car and wanted to confirm. She was hesitant and we insisted stating that his wife was out of town and there was no other family except us. The officer checked and confirmed that it was Dave’s car and that he had been taken to the hospital. I called Kelly and told her about the accident; she said “I’m coming home” and hung up. Nadia and I went to the hospital and waited for news. We sat in the family room, waited for the chaplain and prayed. Finally we were allowed to go back but were unable to see him. The nurse asked if we were waiting for him. We answered yes. I told her that his wife was out of town. The nurse told me that she had her on the phone. As we were walking away I heard her say “Kelly this is Yrmc ER calling; David has been in an accident.” Nadia and I then returned to work to let everyone know what was going on. The leadership team was informed. And we waited. We made arrangements for someone to pick up their dogs to take care of them. Kelly called and told me that they were air-vaking him to Phoenix. All they could tell her was that he was in critical condition. So again we waited. A teacher Bonnie, called whose husband was ex chp. She said the accident was really bad. Kelly text me and she was getting on the plane and would land approx 330 in Phoenix. I asked if she needed me to come and she said her son was coming. This was approximately 1230. At approx 215 Bonnie called and said that Dave had died in flight to Phoenix. Becky, a board member called and said she was getting calls that he had died. I spent the next hours knowing he was dead but not being able to tell Kelly. What if I was wrong. What if they were able to revive him. So again we waited. In my head I was figuring the timeframe. If she lands at 330 and takes 30 minutes to get luggage that takes her to 4. Figure 20-30 minutes to get out of airport-that’s 430. Google how far airport is to hospital-10 mins. That’s 440. By 515 she will know what I already know. At 345 she text me they had landed and were on the way to the hospital. I prayed that Bonnie’s husband was wrong. I prayed that Kelly would arrive and he would be alive. I prayed for strength for Kelly. By 530 the board members had arrived. No announcement would be made until we had received confirmation from the family. We were all still holding onto hope. At 550 I left the office. At 555 Kelly called me. She didn’t make it in time. He died in flight. “I didn’t get to say goodbye Karen. They let me hold his hand. I’m coming home. I need my dogs there when I get home. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I need my dogs. The keyless code is 2007 our anniversary. I need my dogs.” I promised her they would be there. I hung up and turned around to give the news to Kish and the board. He was gone.

    Dave made the decision, I know in my heart, to go to God. He knew that his injuries were so bad that he would never be able to be back to the Dave Kelly loved. She would spend the rest of her life, willingly, taking care of him. He made the choice that he could not let that happen – he loved her too much.

  15. My daughter was stillborn on May 8th, her due date. My guilt is insurmountable. Three weeks prior I felt less movement but my husband convinced me that everything was fine. I convinced myself that my baby was fine. I didn’t seek medical attention and now blame myself for her death.

    • Deborah – I am so sorry for your loss. Please know that you are not alone and although that does not help the pain you feel, the healing can be found in the support of others who have experienced the same loss. Please consider attending a retreat with other women who have lost their children. I am the coordinator for a retreat that helps women heal from abortion, miscarriage and stillborn. I find comfort in knowing that my children that I lost are in heaven waiting for me when God calls me home.

  16. My daughter, sober at the time and in a recovery program,obtained drugs for her brother, my son, on her own birthday, and he died from them Tragic. No her guilt is insurmountable. No counseling has helped her. They were best friends,she and her brother and to have him die on her birthday and because she supplied the drugs is too much for her. No,no one blames her. We have told her this many times, just can’t convince her. Counselors have told her the same. Advice? This occurred 14 months ago.

  17. In July 2009 my mother was diagnosed with Colon cancer and started her journey of operations and chemotherapy. In January 2010, six months later, I was diagnosed with Breast cancer, which included operations, chemotherapy and radiation. We both went to the same cancer clinic, and unknown to them, as I am married and have a different last name, ended up with the same oncologist as well. So we would go to each others appointments together and they would set up our treatments for the same day. I felt very blessed that I could hold my mom’s hand and she could hold mine as we went thru this journey together of the same experiences with treatment and our body changes
    In November 2011 the cancer took my mother, In April 2012, I was” released” from the cancer clinic, cancer free. I remember my doctor saying “your released and you don’t have to come back for any appointments”. As I was walking out of the hospital that day I remember thinking, wow “released”, what a great day!! Then it hit me, before I reach the main doors, here I am walking out of the hospital because I’m “released”, but my mom didn’t. She was released in a very different way, she didn’t get to walk out. I could not and still can’t let go of the word “released”. Why have I gotten to live and she didn’t?
    As time went on I fell into the routine of life again, but there always seemed to be something missing or not quiet right. I started to get anxiety and panic attacks, which I had never had before. I tried positive self help avenues, but was never really able to find that positive emotion. I thought it was the chemo medicines that had changed my brain pathways somehow. It has taken 5 years, just this week, with the help of counseling, for me to realize that I may be suffering from Survivor Guilt. I, unconsciously, do not allow myself to be happy and enjoy the second chance at life I have been given. Just when I think I’m happy about something it’s like a trigger somewhere in my subconscious says “nope, you can’t be happy if your mom isn’t here to enjoy this too”.
    I know my mother would never have wanted me to go thru life feeling this way as she was a very positive person. If she were here today she would say “don’t be silly, you have so many happy memories to still make with your husband, children and future grandchildren. Find the happiness that each day holds and enjoy the second chance you’ve been given!”,
    Thank you for this website, it is the first step in my journey of understanding and being able to accept that “I am worthy of this second chance at life”

    • Joyce – wishing you some comfort in those memories of your mom this mother’s day weekend. In a group we run at a local homeless shelter someone said something that really struck me this week. She said, I think it’s important to remind yourself “you can have a good life, even after your good life”. She described how wonderful her life was before some devastating losses and how hard it was to imagine it could every be good of happy again. Now she reminders herself of the beauty of the “good life” she had before her losses, and of the “good life” she wants to live now. I share with you because you are absolutely worthy of not only a second chance, but also “a good life after your good life” with your mom. I hope you find support on our site!

  18. My husband died suddenly of a heart attack over 2 years ago. I’m still struggling with, I believe, survivors guilt. I should have insisted on driving him to the hospital when he had indigestion/heart burn symtoms. He had recently had tests done by one of those clinics that check all kinds of things, like cholesterol, diabetes, heart function, etc. I wasn’t with him when it was done, so I’m not exactly sure what he had checked. His father died at age 52 from a heart attack so he was very aware of anything that didn’t feel right and tried to keep on top of his health. He had been hunting in very cold weather and when he got home he complained of having indigestion and asked for some over the counter drugs to ease his discomfort. Once he took some, he felt better for a while and continued his normal routine. This went on for 2 days and on the last night, he complained again about his chest hurting and indigestion. I started up the car to get ready to go to the emergency room with him, but again, he took some antacids and he said he felt better and to shut off the car. The next morning I woke up to find him complaining again of the pain. I told him we were going to the emergency room and I started to get ready. He said ok, but he was going to lie down for a bit first. He gave me a big hug and laid down in bed. I heard him snoring in just a few minutes and I laughed to myself that I really need to record that noise so he can hear himself! After watching him a short time, he stopped snoring and stopped breathing. I shook him, trying to wake him up and he wouldn’t wake up!! I went into shock but was able to call 911. They tried to guide me into giving him CPR. I should have put him on the floor and tried giving him chest compressions, but I just couldn’t think. I also should have called my sister-in-law who lived 2 miles away and is an emergency responder, but I didn’t remember that. By the time I did call her, she said it was too late. The ambulance arrived about 30 minutes after I called 911. I just feel so guilty that I didn’t get him into the emergency room as soon as he mentioned his chest pain the few days before. It just didn’t even cross my mind that he could be having a heart attack, mostly because he had so recently had the tests done. Also, because, I trusted him to take care of himself and he trusted me to take care of myself because we wanted to live a long time together. When I saw him in his casket I just wanted to crawl right into it with him. I don’t know how to move on. I’ve been keeping busy dealing with everything he had, but I know at some point, I need to figure out the rest of my life. Thanks for having this site for me to write all this down. Maybe now I can get a better grip.

  19. 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.

  20. 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!

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

    • 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.

  22. I feel guilty b

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

    • 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

    • 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..

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. 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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