What is survivors guilt?
On a basic level, survivor guilt is a sense of deep guilt that comes when one survives something. Survivor guilt is common for survivors of wars, natural disasters or other traumas. Survivor guilt was actually first documented and discussed after the Holocaust and has since become recognised as far more common than was initially understood.
It is a common reaction to traumatic events and a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Some of the familiar circumstances one experience survivor guilt are:
- After surviving war
- Surviving an accident
- Surviving natural disaster
- Surviving an act of violence
So many experiencing survivor guilt struggle to understand why they survived and others did not. why others lost everything and they did not.
Following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, clients shared a recurring difficulty because they survived and/or their homes survived while so many others lost their life and/or their homes.
It was common for these clients to express feelings of relief and appreciation for their survival and simultaneously felt guilt and shame for having those feelings when others did not survive or lost everything. This was especially so when their friends and others in their community suffer tremendous loss of life or property. Some spoke of how the house next door was decimated and their home was effectively untouched. they were plagued with “why”.
It is important to remember, rational or irrational, survivor guilt is normal. It is NOT a sign of unhealthy grief. Some people will try to convince survivors they should not feel guilty and leave them feel it isn’t okay to feel guilty. However having said that, if the survivor guilt doesn’t begin to resolve itself naturally over a month or two professional help needs to be sort. Sometimes the guilt becomes overwhelming or obsessive, whereby the thoughts become so intrusive that they impact on functioning or relationships.
So, the question is: what can you do?
- Accept what you are feeling.
Guilt is a stigmatised emotion, as people can make us feel that it is irrational and wrong to feel guilty. Remember that guilt is not, on its own, a problem. It is a grief response. It is a natural feeling that needs to be acknowledged, accepted and processed.
- Know you’re not alone.
Survivor guilt is much more common than people recognise. Finding a support group or other space to connect with others experiencing similar feelings can be very helpful in sharing feelings and feeling less isolated.
- Remember relief and grief can co-exist
You can feel relief and appreciation for your survival and acknowledge your grief for those who died or lost everything. Celebrating your own survival does not in any way diminish your grief for those who did not survive or lost their homes.
- Grieve those who died.
In some cases, those who died are not people you knew personally or knew well. This does not mean you cannot take space to mourn those who died in a way that is personal and meaningful for you.
- Don’t get stuck on the ‘whys’.
When events like this happen we often fixate on the ‘why’. The challenge is to try to let go of asking the ‘why’ question, accept there is no acceptable explanation, and divert your focus to create your own meaning from your survival. Whether it is big or small, seek the ways you will create something from this second chance.
- Embrace life.
In spite of your feelings of guilt, it is important to enjoy the life you have been given. In the depths of guilt, this can be hard, but it can also be an extremely helpful part of recovering from your grief and valuing the gift you were given.
- Talk to a counsellor.
If you are still struggling with survivor guilt 2 months after the event take steps to get some professional help. Look for a counsellor in your area with experience in trauma as they are likely have experience with this type of guilt.
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