When someone survives a life-threatening situation, it’s common to experience what’s known as survivor’s guilt. Survivor’s guilt is a particular kind of grief that makes someone feel they have done something wrong by being spared when others were not so fortunate. It is considered a symptom of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), although not everyone with PTSD experiences it.
Survivor’s guilt is often observed in war veterans, cancer survivors and those who have survived a tragic event, such a natural disaster or car accident. Other signs include flashbacks or obsessive thoughts, trouble sleeping, irritability, depression and lack of motivation.
It’s important to know that while survivor’s guilt is common, it is not healthy. Unlike grief, it is not something that allows you to process an unexpected loss in a healthy way. If you or a loved one are struggling with survivor’s guilt, you are not alone. Here are some action steps you can take toward healing.
Accept That You Don’t Have All the Answers
If you are dealing with survivor’s guilt, you might find yourself always asking, “Why?”
Common questions that survivors grapple with include:
- Why did this happen?
- Why did I survive?
- What else could I have done to save others?
Questions like these may keep you up at night, but they will never get you anywhere. The sooner you allow yourself to accept that you will never have the answers, the sooner you can begin to heal. Grief is our natural response to loss, but the grieving process can’t begin until you let go of that burden.
Identify Misplaced Responsibility
Survivor’s guilt is rooted in irrational thinking. You may find yourself constantly replaying your own actions and rationalizing what you could have done differently. It’s important to recognize that there’s usually a disconnect between the way you remember things and what actually happened.
“There are times when guilt may have a legitimate cause (such as causing an accident that led to another person’s death or injury),” says mental health resource VeryWell, “but in a lot of these instances, there is little or nothing that a person could do to prevent or change the outcome.”
The truth is, there’s no way of knowing all the possible outcomes of a situation. That’s why letting go of irrational responsibility is an important step toward healing.
Allow Yourself to Feel
When experiencing any kind of grief, it’s tempting to bury your emotions so you don’t have to deal with them. This is a short-term solution, however. As time goes on, those emotions will bubble back up to the surface. That’s why allowing yourself to feel is an important part of the grieving process.
Whatever you are feeling – loss, grief, shame, guilt, confusion, anger – allow yourself to feel it all. Open up to a trusted family member or friend, even if you feel like the emotions are too heavy or ugly to share. The sooner you acknowledge your emotions, the sooner you can deal with them.
Leave Room for Positive Emotions
People with survivor’s guilt often feel shame because they are thankful to be alive. They might also feel guilty for having joy in their own life because others did not get the same chance.
Again, it’s important to know that while these feelings are common, they are not healthy. In these instances, normal feelings of grief are being overshadowed by the burden of responsibility.
One therapist recommends imagining what the person who died would say to you. Would that person want you to be unhappy? Would they say that you don’t deserve to be alive?
Chances are, if the roles were reversed, you would want that person to be happy and live a full, meaningful life. You would not want them to carry the heavy burden of guilt. With that in mind, try to give yourself the same compassion.
Seek Professional Help
If you are struggling with survivor’s guilt, it’s a good idea to reach out to a professional. Many therapists and counselors specialize in grief and will be able to help you begin the process of healing.
As with any type of grief, survivor’s guilt is not something that will go away overnight. That’s why building a relationship with a trusted therapist is an important part of confronting your feelings of guilt and moving on with your life.
If you are grieving and need someone to talk to, Bevis Funeral Home is committed to helping you through this difficult time. You can access online counseling services, join in group grief support, or watch our interactive videos, anytime: 24/7. No matter how you feel at this moment, you have our commitment – you’re never alone.
If you are having thoughts of suicide or know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The deaf and hard of hearing can contact the Lifeline via TTY at 1-800-799-4889.