Do You Suffer From Survivor’s Guilt?
By Nadia Khan
Updated December 19, 2018
Reviewer Laura Angers
The world today is full of news about various catastrophic experiences and events, from natural disasters to intense violence from one human to another. Many of these events have no logical explanation for why one person survived, and another didn't. If you lived through one of these events, you might be wondering, "Why did I live, and that person didn't?" Those who live through these events often suffer through survivor's guilt.
What Is Survivor's Guilt?
According to the FreeDictionary.Com, survivor's guilt is "a deep feeling of guilt often experienced by those who have survived some catastrophe that took the lives of many others; derives in part from a feeling that they did not do enough to save the others who perished and in part from feelings of being unworthy relative to those who died."
This type of guilt was first noted in those who survived the Holocaust, which was a tragedy on many levels for those who were touched by the events in some way or another. It was particularly apparent among those who lived in the concentration camps, where individuals were arbitrarily chosen to go to the gas chamber or other form of execution, while others were spared. It was a random selection process, with little rhyme or reason, yet as human beings, we want a logical reason for why events go a certain way.
Survivor's guilt was originally a diagnosis in the DSM but is now classified under post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That being said, you don't need to be diagnosed with PTSD to suffer from survivor's guilt. The loss of a family member unexpectedly or even suicide can leave you with feelings of guilt and questions about why you survived when they didn't.
If you have lived through a traumatic event, then you can understand that need to create reason from the chaos that you just experienced. Others might be trapped by survivor's guilt after successful beating cancer or another disease, only to see friends and loved ones lose their fight.
The Complexity Of Survivor's Guilt
Survivor's guilt is so complex because the experiences can vary dramatically. Some individuals do not experience it, and those who do experience survivor's guilt may have it for different lengths of time and with various levels of intensity. However, the underlying feelings are similar. You feel guilty that you survived when someone else died and that you don't deserve to live when the other person didn't.
In some cases, your survivor's guilt could be triggered by the feeling that there was more you could have done to save the life of the one who died. Thus, you tend to question your actions and decisions during those events.
In disasters or violent circumstances, you might have been rescued by someone who later died. Thus, you could feel guilty because your rescuer died saving you. The various shootings in recent years were filled with stories of individuals dying to protect loved ones or even perfect strangers.
When Might You Experience Survivor's Guilt?
There are several typical circumstances where survivor's guilt can be a common experience. Here are just a few of examples:
Surviving a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, flood, or mudslide
Surviving a violent act, such as a shooting in a public place, at work, or at a school
War veterans are often the first example of survivor's guilt, as they deal with realities of life and death daily and then must reconcile their feelings of knowing that they did nothing wrong with guilt at being the one who came home. When you suffer from survivor's guilt, you take responsibility for circumstances that goes beyond what you can be held responsible for, but you feel the guilt that comes with that sense of responsibility.
There are other circumstances that can result in survivor's guilt, although these are less commonly discussed. For instance, those that survive an illness which kills others; when a parent dies in childbirth; receiving an organ transplant from someone who died; not being present at an accident where a loved one died; when a child dies before a parent; or causing an accident in which others die.
The Rationale Behind Survivor's Guilt
For those who suffer from survivor's guilt, there is some rationale behind it, but sometimes there isn't. Depending on the circumstances, you might legitimately be able to find where your actions (or lack of action) impacted another's death. As a result, you might have a rational feeling of guilt.
In other cases, the irrational guilt steps in, because your guilt is based on what you perceive that you could of or should have done, even if you were miles away at the time. This guilt defies any logic but is a coping mechanism to deal with feelings of helplessness in the wake of tragedy.
For those dealing with this intense guilt, the underlying feelings of grief and helplessness need to be acknowledged and dealt with. Using a therapist can help you to understand what you are feeling and help you to deal with them.
What You Shouldn't Do For Someone With Survivor's Guilt
Regardless of whether their guilt is based on a rational line of thought or not, it is important not to minimize their guilt or tell them that they have nothing to feel guilty about. The reason is that you can't change how someone feels.
In a blog on WhatsYourGrief.com, a cognitive behavioral therapist shared why we tend to want to talk someone out of feeling guilty. "We suck at death, dying, and grief in our society. We don't want to sit with pain and despair…Guilt though? That is just too much for us to sit with. Something about guilt makes us think it is an emotion we should dispute and try to quash. Guilt suddenly makes us think we have permission to argue with a griever about their feelings. Rather than listening, accepting, and exploring how our friend is feeling, we decide to tell them what they are feeling is wrong. We imagine that someone who feels guilt is damaged, needs to be fixed, or that they are 'stuck.'"
This therapist noted that our response to guilt is based on a need to fix it, but survivor's guilt isn't easy to just fix by telling someone to "get over it." It requires us to be willing to listen to others express how they feel and not judge them or try to fix it. If you are suffering from survivor's guilt, it is important to talk out your feelings, not bottling your feelings of guilt inside.
Part of dealing with survivor's guilt is wrestling with the question of why you survived. You might even feel as if you aren't worthy to be alive when that other individual is not. Others feel grateful and even relieved that they survived, and at the same time, guilty for having those feelings when others did not survive.
While this guilt might be normal, the problem is that not every case resolves itself naturally over time. In fact, for some, survivor's guilt begins to negatively impact their lives to such an extent that they can't function, as the feelings of guilt become obsessive. If your guilt is to that point, then it is important to get help.
Here are a few things you can do to cope with your survivor's guilt.
- Accept what you are feeling is natural, needs to be acknowledged, and processed like any other emotion.
- You are not alone. Support groups are available, where you can connect with others who are also dealing with survivor's guilt.
- Relief for your survival can co-exist with your guilt. Being grateful for your survival doesn't diminish your grief for the lives lost.
- Be willing to grieve, and do so at your own pace.
- Use your guilt to help others. You can raise awareness or teach others lessons you learned, or even just encourage others to talk about their feelings by sharing your experience.
- Don't get stuck on trying to answer the "Why" question. Instead, focus on creating meaning from your survival. Likely you will never find the answer to the "Why," but you can isolate yourself, instead of focusing on how you can create something from your second chance.
- Talk with a counselor. When it comes to sharing your feelings, you might feel that it is too much to share with a close friend. A therapist or counselor can help you to deal with your feelings of guilt, and assist you in dealing with your loss.
The loss of a family member, friend, or co-worker can bring feelings of loss and guilt. Dealing with the guilt, which you feel from surviving, can be overwhelming. Working with an online therapist, you can address your feelings of guilt and the trauma behind them. In many cases, those with survivor's guilt will want to work with a therapist who has experience in dealing with trauma. To find an online therapist to address your survivor's guilt or feelings of grief, go to BetterHelp, where you can be matched with a licensed and certified therapist to address your needs.