When a devastating accident causes the death of loved ones, especially family, and leaves us unharmed with just a few scratches, often we thank the stars for the big save, but others sulk in guilt, anger, and shame. Relatives tell you how happy they are that you’re safe, but deep inside you can’t shake that feeling of, “Why not me,” or, “Why didn’t I just die with them,” or worst, “How could I have not done anything to save them?”
These blame-worthy remarks are real and can come from an individual experiencing survivor guilt.
Survivor Guilt Examples
“Experiencing a significant loss such as losing a loved one, a pet, a relationship, or a job can bring on feelings of grief that can be extremely overwhelming. Typical feelings associated with grief include sadness, anger, guilt, numbness, and confusion.” That is according to Tali Yuz Berliner, Psy.D. When someone thinks he has made a mistake simply because he survived an accident or other tragic events where his companions died, then survivor guilt persists. It can present on multiple spectrums and feelings may evolve from relief, confusion, bitterness, and eventually despair and guilt. It can usually be seen in persons who have suffered from a large-scale disaster (like wars, shipwrecks, or wars), although it may also manifest from unusual events.
Take, for example, a Syrian student studying in America is anxious as he keeps thinking about his family back in his hometown. He feels guilty that he is safe and secure where he is while his family’s fate is unknown. He wonders, “Why do I deserve to be safe here? How can I read books and drink latte when my family can die at any time?”
Another instance where guilt manifests is in a cancer patient attending a support group that is grieving over the loss of a member. The cancer patient may ask herself, “Why am I still here and she went ahead of me? My cancer’s spreading faster than hers. How did I get so lucky?”
How about a woman who just lost her brother who committed suicide? She grieves so severely for his brother, misses him so much, and feels guilty that she might have prevented the suicide. “If only I have been more available to talk to, perhaps he would still be here.”
There are many other examples, but let us now define survivor guilt so we can better understand what it is and how to best handle it.
Survivor Guilt Definition
Basically, survivor guilt is defined as a sense of guilt from a person who survives an event that has left the rest of his companions dead. You may have heard about this term when people talk about survivors of calamities, battles, or other types of traumatic phenomena. Originally, the concept of survivor guilt was first put to record and became a discussion after the great Holocaust. Eventually, it became a diagnosis in DSM but was removed afterward and is now a symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder.
What’s complicated about survivor guilt is that each person has a different reaction to an experience, meaning that it can be traumatic to one but not to another. Also, how long it takes and how profound its effect varies from person to person. However, the primary emotions are more or less the same: the feeling of guilt that you survived while the others did not.
Coping With Survivor Guilt
If you’re suffering from survivor guilt, it may take time and patience to heal. However, here are some coping techniques that can help when being alive makes you feel depressed and undeserved.
- Don’t Forget That You Were Not Responsible. If it was a car accident, recall whose fault it was if at all it was anyone’s. Were you even driving? For the Syrian student, is he really accountable for the turmoil in his country? Of course not! You can blame it on the government or the rebels, but never to yourself. In all other catastrophes, it might be that no one is responsible, especially in calamities where the causes are generally natural. Mourn for the dead, but do not take responsibility for them. “Acknowledge and accept the feelings: The first step is to learn to bring the feeling out,” says Roya R. Rad, MA, PsyD.
- Remember Those Who Love You And Are Happy That You Survived. Even if you’re feeling guilty about why you lived, think about your parents, siblings or significant others who thanked the heavens for your survival. Imagine how devastated they would have been if you died. The gift of second life might have been given to you, something that not everyone gets to have. Be grateful. Live your life with more meaning. Share it with your loved ones.
- You Can Cope With Loss Because You Are Strong. Some people who are afflicted with survivor guilt may be hiding under the condition because it is less painful than having to face the feeling of loss itself. But avoiding the truth will eventually make things and circumstances worse. You can sulk for a while, but you’ll have to face the feeling head-on, accept it, and then find ways to move on. You have to – for yourself and the others who are relying on you. The words to the song are true: What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. “Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and the nature of the loss. The grieving process takes time.” Kevin Stevenson, LMHC, MCAP is correct with that statement.
- Pay It Forward. Do something about your guilt positively by participating in charity events or visiting and providing support for families who lost their loved ones to disasters. Let your regrets be your motivator to do good and be part of a wonderful future for others.