Survivor guilt (sometimes referred to as “survivor’s guilt”, “survivor syndrome” or “survivor’s syndrome”) can take many forms. It can affect survivors of catastrophic events that took many lives; or it can affect individuals mourning an individual loss. It can be associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; or it can be experienced without PTSD being present. It can be debilitating, too, but doesn’t have to be. Let’s examine survivor guilt and explore ways to cope:
What is Survivor Guilt?
Survivor guilt is a mental condition. Once identified as a specific diagnosis by the American Psychiatric Association, the APA redefined it as a symptom of PTSD when it published the fourth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1994.
Survivor guilt may manifest itself when an individual believes they have done something wrong by surviving an event when others died. This triggering event might be large-scale, such as an earthquake, or smaller in scope, such as a traffic accident. Typically, individuals suffering from survivor guilt are plagued by questions such as “Why did I live when these others died?” or “What could I have done to prevent these deaths?” Survivor guilt may lead to deep introspection and questioning about one’s life purpose and how to live up the burden of surviving when others did not.
Who Can be Affected by Survivor Guilt?
The obvious answer is that survivor guilt can affect virtually anyone who survives an event, disease, or other life trauma when others did not. It can be subtle or severe. It can be haunting and debilitating. Untreated and in its most unrelenting forms, survivor guilt could lead to suicide.
Famous people have experienced survivor guilt in some form or another, too. Elvis Presley was reported to have suffered survivor guilt because he lived while his twin brother was stillborn. Supposedly, Elvis felt he absorbed nutrients in the womb his brother needed to survive.
Waylon Jennings, too, reportedly suffered survivor’s guilt because he gave up his airplane seat to ailing J.P. (the Big Bopper) Richardson on the plane that crashed and killed Richardson, Buddy Holly and others.
How to Cope with Survivor Guilt
With so many nuances and depths of severity, the first and best way to cope with survivor guilt is to seek counseling from a qualified mental health caregiver. For less severe forms of the condition:
- Understand that survivor guilt is a natural and normal emotional response to certain situations. It is more common than most people realize.
- Recognize that experiencing survivor guilt doesn’t mean you are truly guilty; it merely means you are mentally and emotionally processing what happened.
- Realize that it’s okay to feel relief and gratitude for having survived even as you mourn those who were lost.
- Understand that sometimes bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason. So, don’t dwell on unearthing answers to one “why” after another. Sometimes there simply are no reasons why.
- Look for ways to turn your guilt into purpose. Actively seek ways to turn a horrible situation into positive change – for yourself and others.
- Enjoy life. Even if it is difficult to understand why you survived when others did not, take that fact as a blessing. Life is a gift. Enjoy every day.
Above all, seek help when you need it. It can be difficult to self-diagnose or even process what you are feeling in a healthy manner. If you do not feel you are capable of moving past survivor guilt in a constructive manner or in a reasonable time frame, seek counseling.
At Stillinger Family Funeral Home, we recognize that sometimes persons mourning a loss may also be experiencing survivor guilt. For referrals to local grief counseling and mental health resources in Greenfield and Hancock County Indiana, contact us at 317.462.5536.