“Our guilt, like our grief, can be complex, and deserves our care and compassion so we may begin to heal.” – Anonymous
Sometimes, when something terrible happens, we can feel a sense of guilt that we escaped unharmed. Maybe a close friend lost a partner to cancer, or a coworker’s child was stillborn. Perhaps we were involved in a car wreck where others didn’t make it, or a public tragedy plays out on the news as we think “How awful. Why them? Why were they unlucky and I was so very fortunate?” While we didn’t do anything to cause the pain, we somehow feel a sense of responsibility, a weight that we carry and cannot seem to put down.
What is Survivor’s Guilt?
Survivor’s guilt/ noun
1. “ A condition of persistent mental and emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived an incident in which others died.”
Many people experience feelings of empathy when someone around them loses someone, or when a public tragedy occurs in which many lives are lost, whether they were there to witness it firsthand or not. It’s easy to imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes, and to have compassion for how they may be feeling.
Survivor’s guilt can come from a very different place, though, leaving someone unable to think of anything other than the misplaced guilt. Many people experiencing survivor’s guilt report that they replay scenes in their mind, both of real events and imagined scenarios. Some may even re-imagine the situation, placing themselves in the position of losing their own life, or of being present during a public tragedy. If they were present during the tragedy, they may become obsessed with thoughts of how they could have potentially acted in a way to save someone. Rational understanding of the situation gives way to waves of shame over the “what-ifs” and “should-have-dones.”
When Might You Experience Survivor’s Guilt?
Survivor’s guilt is more common than one might think, and can happen in a variety of circumstances. There is no singular event more likely to trigger the emotions than another. Some people may experience survivor’s guilt in the following situations:
- Survivors of natural disasters
- A parent outliving a child
- Survivors of an act of violence such as a mass shooting
- Causing or surviving an accident where others did not survive.
- Losing a drug user to an overdose
- Witnessing a traumatic event
- Losing a friend or family member to suicide
- First responders who regularly witness life-ending events
- Receiving an organ transplant from a deceased donor
- Individuals who survive a fatal illness
- Individuals who lose a loved one to injury or illness
- War veterans
Guilt can, at times, be a helpful emotion. When we have wronged someone, or caused someone pain, guilt can be a guide in how to repair the wrong. But misplaced guilt, guilt that we carry based on imagined scenarios or wishful thinking, can be incredibly harmful to our mental well-being. These feelings can manifest as grief, both for the ones who we lost, and for our inability to somehow save them. At some point, we must accept that no amount of self blame can bring someone back, or change events that have already happened.
Maia Hebron, a Parkland shooting survivor, describes these confusing feelings well:
“Honestly, it made me kinda appreciate my life and the people around it. But, it also… I mean it changed me forever. It’s gonna be something that everyday I’m gonna wake up and think about my classmates, my close friends from middle school that aren’t allowed to have the experiences that I guess I have now. So like part of me feels guilty, a part of me feels thankful, a part of me feels like it’s still unreal, but that I’m gonna have to keep living. And I know that my neighbors, that people in my community, don’t have a life anymore because of one kid because of a gun. I mean, I’m always gonna have to live with that.”
Overcoming Survivor’s Guilt
Survivor’s guilt, though unpleasant, is an entirely normal reaction to losing someone or knowing that many lives have been lost. We are wired for connection, and our minds can trick us into thinking that we could have somehow used our connection to make the impossible become possible. Some may have already experienced trauma in childhood or young adulthood, which can make them even more susceptible to feelings of survivor’s guilt later in life. It can be helpful to understand some of the signs of survivor’s guilt, so you can recognize and address them.
Survivors Guilt Symptoms
The following are symptoms of PTSD associated with survivor’s guilt:
- Repeated flashbacks of the trauma
- Obsessive thinking about the trauma
- Feelings of being overwhelmed, angry, frustrated, and/or irritable
- A sense of isolation, loneliness, disconnection, and hopelessness
- Feelings of helplessness, fear, and confusion
- Physical symptoms, such as stomachaches, headaches, nausea, muscle tension, and heart palpitations
- An inability to sleep or sleeping more than normal
- A lack of motivation and social isolation
- Depression, anxiety, or thoughts of suicide
Remember, it’s normal to feel guilty about surviving a trauma that others did not or even thinking about what one did or did not do during the event.
Research suggests that people with survivor’s guilt and certain symptoms of PTSD may recover naturally without treatment after the first year. However, if the guilt you are feeling seems overwhelming, or does not seem to be resolving over time, you may wish to seek professional help from a trusted counselor or therapist.
Coping with Survivor’s Guilt
1. Accept Your Feelings as Normal
Guilt is a normal reaction to surviving a trauma when others did not. Just because you are feeling guilt doesn’t mean that you are guilty or have done anything wrong. Give yourself permission to celebrate the fact that you are still alive, while also feeling sad for those who are no longer with us. It’s okay to have conflicting feelings about the event.
2. Be Patient With Yourself
It takes time to acknowledge, grieve, and process through a tragedy and the resulting feelings you may be experiencing.
3. Take Time to Grieve
Give yourself time to mourn those who were lost in the tragedy. Even if you did not know them, it’s normal to feel sadness for their loss. After experiencing a significant loss, it’s important to find time and space to grieve their loss in a way that means something to you.
Suggested Read: 5 Stages Of Grief – Why Everyone Grieves Differently (2019 Edition)
4. Focus on the Facts
When you focus on the truth of the situation, it takes away the ability to assign self-blame and/or guilt for what happened.
5. Take Care of Yourself
Do whatever makes you feel better. This could include walks in nature, listening to music, spending time with friends, writing down your feelings, or creating art of some sort. Self care is important as we process grief, and can have a huge impact on how we heal.
Suggested Read: Importance Of Self-Care — Why It Is Not Selfish
6. Do Something for Others
We naturally feel happier when we do kind and loving acts for others. You may wish to do something kind for someone who often spends their time helping or healing others. You could bring fresh baked cookies to a local fire station, write cards to members of the military who are deployed, or donate gift cards to a school to be used to buy supplies for teachers. Wherever you feel called to do good, go there.
7. Eliminate the ‘Whys’ and ‘What Ifs’
It is natural to wonder what could have gone differently. But we must let go of the idea that events can be changed, as that will only prolong our feelings of guilt. Even if things had gone differently, there is no way to know whether or not lives could have been saved. Sometimes we simply need to acknowledge and trust that some things are not in our control.
8. Embrace Life
Whether you feel you deserve it or not, the fact is that you are still here, you are still alive. You can decide to use this life you have to do good, and to help others. Take time to enjoy the small moments, the hot cup of coffee, the flowers blooming in your neighbor’s yard, the laughter of children in a park. When you focus on the good around you, you may find that the feelings of guilt creep in less often.
Suggested Read: How To Make Your Day More Meaningful
9. Connect With Others
Sharing your feelings with those you trust or joining a support group can be a cathartic way to release negative emotions. Knowing that others have felt what we are feeling can have a very uplifting impact, as we recognize our shared humanity.
10. Maintain a Daily Routine
You may feel you are going through the motions at first, but sticking to your usual daily routine can be very comforting. It’s ok if things feel odd at first, but given time, you’ll find that your life is still waiting for you to rejoin it.
11. Make a Difference
Sometimes guilt can be alleviated by finding purpose in a tragedy. Consider working or speaking on behalf of a cause, supporting others who have experienced a similar trauma, or educating people about your experience.
12. Practice Self-Forgiveness
If you did bring harm to another person, learning how to forgive yourself will help you move on and rebuild your life. It’s important to take responsibility for your actions, allow yourself to feel remorse, make amends as best as you can for your behavior, and take positive steps to help you move forward.
Suggested Read: Moving Forward After A Passing
Seeking Help: Survivor’s Guilt Treament
Seek professional help if flashbacks, intense guilt, disturbing nightmares, or any other symptoms of PTSD do not resolve themselves. There are counselors who specialize in trauma and the effects of PTSD. Although therapy is the primary course of treatment for PTSD, some people may require medication. There is no shame in asking for help. With treatment, people can take back control of their lives.
If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, it is critical to receive immediate medical attention. Surviving a fatal traumatic event has been associated with higher levels of suicidal ideation, plans, and attempts.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has compassionate individuals available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.
Many people who experience survivor’s guilt feel that it is not fair that they lived when others were not so lucky. It can be healing to decide to use the life you have to do good for others, and to carry on the legacy of those who were lost. If the feelings of guilt persist, you may find it helpful to meet with a therapist who specializes in grief and guilt. Often, talking through things with a trusted individual can help us to untangle our difficult feelings, and create a plan to move forward. Our guilt, like our grief, can be complex, and deserves our care and compassion so we may begin to heal. Know that while you cannot change the past, you can decide to make your present and your future as good as possible.