I started this blog to share my interest on the topic of “survivor guilt”, and provide information and resources to those who might be interested in the topic and how to deal with it. Please share your thoughts, experiences, and resources. I am just starting to wrap my hands around the topic and hope this information is of some help.
This is an area of personal interest that I have developed during my PhD studies in psychology that may be on interest to some of you. Many terminal illness survivors and caregivers may experience this in many different ways and it could be of benefit to be aware of its occurrence. I also survived the Sept 11, 2001 attack in the Pentagon, and most recently, the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard. These prompted me to ask “why not me?” “why am I still here?” and ever since I have been living every day to make it count, to make a difference, and help others.
I have also seen how some great friends have been affected by this after losing loved ones or surviving a period of struggling with an uncertain future. They feel like they did not do enough and now are trying to compensate for it, or feel not worthy of making it though the challenge. That can be good and bad, as they may end up overextending themselves and their effort may backfire on them. I intend to conduct post-doctoral research on this and would like to include a competency at LIVESTRONG on how to help people that experience Survivor Guilt cope with it in a positive way.
Survivor Guilt: What Long-term Survivors Don’t Talk About
While survivor guilt is not experienced by everyone, and may vary a great deal in intensity, it appears to be a common experience. The following article answers some questions survivors may have after experiencing a tragedy.
What is survivor guilt?
Survivor guilt has been described in Holocaust survivors, war veterans, rescue workers, transplant recipients and relatives spared from hereditary illness. Relatively little discussion of survivor guilt has taken place among long-term survivors of acute and chronic illnesses.
Survivor guilt, when it occurs, derives from situations where persons have been involved in a life- threatening event and lived to tell about it. It is often experienced after traumatic incidents causing multiple deaths. In the special case of chronic illness, survivor guilt can occur after the deaths of peers who faced the same diagnosis. By definition, there is an implied comparison with people who have endured similar ordeals.
Who experiences survivor guilt?
Anyone who survives can experience these feelings including patients, families and healthcare providers. Survivor guilt explores the other side of the coin of why me? Namely, why not me? Why did I survive when others did not? Those who struggle with it may express the feeling of being an impostor: somehow the “wrong” person survived; it “just doesn’t seem right.” Many feel that beating the odds makes little sense unless the survivor earned or deserved it in some way. But some survivors emphasize they don’t feel especially deserving. To complicate feelings of unworthiness, in the early stages of grief there is a tendency to idealize the deceased, so the survivor may feel even less deserving by comparison.
Why does survivor guilt occur?
Survivor guilt may be reinforced by the frequent use of statistical profiles to predict as well as to describe illnesses. However, people given the very same odds for survival do not necessarily have similar outcomes. When only one survives, it is not unusual to conclude that two persons facing the same threat somehow changed places; that one person’s healing occurred at the expense of another; or that there is a debt owed to those who are gone. Some survivors may keep a low profile to avoid spotlighting this contrast of outcomes.
Does survivor guilt have a function or purpose?
Survivor guilt may exist for a reason. It can help people find meaning and make sense out of their experiences. It may help survivors cope with the helplessness and powerlessness of being in a life- threatening situation without the ability to protect or save others. It can also be one way to express a connection to those who have died, a way, for a time, of keeping them alive. Importantly, survivor guilt can co-exist with other responses, such as relief and gratitude, and may occasionally be prompted by them.
What can I do if I experience survivor guilt?
Acknowledge and accept that guilt exists. Feelings of guilt are quite common and represent part of the healing process for persons coping with loss.
When people feel guilty, they tend to isolate themselves. While tempted to keep silent, try to discuss the experience with persons who will not express judgment.
Logic may have little or no impact on guilt, but it is important to do some reality testing with your beliefs. Remind yourself that you are human.
When you find you are comparing yourself with others, try instead to evaluate your situation on its own merits.
Some people try to “work off” their guilt by setting high standards of achievement. This is a very compelling strategy, but it rarely eases feelings of unworthiness.
It may help to find additional ways to keep the memory alive for those who have died by creating a special memory book or holding a service.
Remind yourself that you are struggling to make sense of one of the greatest mysteries of the human race. Rather than explaining it away, try to embrace the mystery.
Source: The Brain Tumor Society
By Roberta D. Calhoun, ACSW, LICSW – The Brain Tumor Society