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.