Survivor’s Guilt: 12 Ways to Cope with Grief After Trauma
“Guilt isn’t always a rational thing… Guilt is a weight that will crush you whether you deserve it or not.” – Maureen Johnson
When I think of survivor’s guilt, an image of an angry and despondent Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump fills my mind. Lieutenant Dan dives deep into despair and depression after losing most of his platoon in the Vietnam War. He had to live with the knowledge that he survived, yet the young soldiers he was responsible for did not. That’s a heck of a load for anyone to carry on their back.
What is Survivor’s Guilt?
Instead of only viewing themselves as lucky or fortunate, survivors question why they lived. During the 1960s, survivor’s guilt was listed in the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a psychological ailment when numerous psychologists described a similar set of symptoms among Holocaust survivors.
Today, survivor’s guilt is considered a symptom of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, an individual can experience survivor’s guilt without a diagnosis of PTSD. In addition to severe anxiety, people who suffer from PTSD may experience distressing, intrusive traumatic memories, flashbacks, and feelings of extreme emotional detachment from others.
When Might You Experience Survivor’s Guilt?
Survivor’s guilt is more prevalent than was first understood and can be observed in a wide range of situations. People who experience survivor’s guilt may include the following:
- Those who survive or escape war
- Survivors of natural disasters
- A parent outliving a child
- Receiving an organ transplant from a deceased donor
- Causing or surviving an accident where others perished or guilt for not being present at the accident
- Losing a fellow drug user to an overdose
- Witnessing a traumatic event
- Losing a friend or family member to suicide
- First responders
- Survivors of an act of violence such as a mass shooting
- Individuals who survive a fatal illness or family members who have lost a loved one to a fatal illness
- War veterans
Guilt can be rational when the survivor’s actions caused or affected the death of another. However, much of the time, survivor’s guilt is irrational. Survivor’s question ‘why?’ or ‘why me?’. They may feel that their life is not as worthy as those who perished or that they could have done more to save lives. If they were saved, they may feel guilty because somebody lost their life saving them. Survivor’s guilt is also complex. Just as an individual feels relief and gratitude for their survival, they may simultaneously feel shame and guilt for having those feelings.
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.”
Whether or not the guilt a survivor feels is rational or irrational, survivor’s guilt is normal. Therefore, it’s okay to feel guilty. In fact, the length and severity of symptoms vary from individual to individual. Guilt only becomes destructive when it cannot be resolved naturally over time. Moreover, some people are more susceptible to the debilitating effects of survivor’s guilt than others. Those who have already experienced a traumatic childhood event, suffer from mental illness or addiction, lack self-esteem, or do not have a close network of family and friends to provide support have an increased chance of experiencing a greater severity of symptoms.
Research also suggests that certain survivors may have an unrealistic perception of the role they played in the traumatic event. They may believe they could have foreseen or affected the outcome of the event, that they are somehow responsible for the trauma, or that there was wrongdoing on their part. These distorted beliefs can significantly increase a survivor’s level of distress which is directly correlated with the severity of symptoms associated with PTSD.
Survivors Guilt Symptoms
The following are symptoms of PTSD associated with survivor’s guilt:
- Repeated flashbacks of the trauma
- Obsessive rumination 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
- A lack of motivation and social isolation
- Depression, anxiety, and 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, at least one-third of individuals who initially develop PTSD and remain symptomatic for 3 years or longer are at risk of secondary problems such as substance misuse. For these individuals and others for whom symptoms are disrupting their daily lives, it is important to seek professional help.
Coping with Survivor’s Guilt
1. Accept Your Feelings as Normal
Just because you are feeling guilt doesn’t mean that you are guilty or have done anything wrong. Guilt is a normal reaction to surviving a trauma when others did not. Give yourself permission to celebrate the fact that you are still alive. 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.
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, massages, nutritious food, laughing with friends, meditating, journaling, or creating art. Do not feel guilty for indulging in self-care; it’s an important part of the healing process.
Suggested Read: Importance Of Self-Care — Why It Is Not Selfish
6. Do Something for Others
We naturally feel happier when we do loving acts for others. Acts of kindness are excellent distractions from negative thoughts like guilt that can overwhelm us.
7. Eliminate the ‘Whys’ and ‘What Ifs’
These are questions that oftentimes can not be answered. Therefore, it is wasted energy and counterproductive to obsess over them. Sometimes, we have to let things go and surrender to the idea that there are some things we will never know.
8. Embrace Life
The fact is you are still here. People who have come close to death often have an increased sense of gratitude and appreciation for life. They no longer become agitated over minor transgressions. Instead, they focus on life’s beauty, making a difference, and enjoying the small moments that bring them joy.
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.
10. Maintain a Daily Routine
Even if we start out by numbly going through the motions, structure can be comforting and give us a sense of direction until we heal.
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
Seek professional help if flashbacks, intense guilt, disturbing nightmares, or any other symptoms of PTSD do not resolve themselves. There are counselors and psychotherapists who specialize in trauma and the effects of PTSD. Although therapy is the primary course of treatment for PTSD, some people may require medication. Don’t be ashamed to ask 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 know someone at immediate risk of self-harm or suicide, it is important to do the following:
- Call 911 or take the individual to the nearest emergency room.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects
- Listen to the person without judgment.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 1-800-273-8255.
Experiencing survivor’s guilt is a common and normal reaction after surviving a traumatic event in which others lost their lives. The symptoms associated with survivor’s guilt may resolve themselves naturally over time; however, if they don’t, it’s important to seek out a qualified therapist who specializes in trauma. For anyone experiencing survivor’s guilt, coping tools may help alleviate symptoms. If you or a loved one is having suicidal thoughts, please seek immediate medical care.