Surviving Survivor’s Guilt

Calvin Desir, Sydney Aiello, and Jeremy Richman all died by suicide the same week. These individuals suffered severe trauma in their lives which were all connected to mass shootings. Desir and Aiello were survivors of the Parkland shootings, while Richman was the father of one of the 20 first-graders killed in the 2012 Newton shooting. These deaths have placed a spotlight on survivor’s guilt or survivor’s syndrome.

What is Survivor’s Guilt?

According to Diana Raab, author of the Psychology Today article entitled “What Everyone Should Know About Survivor’s Guilt,” survivor’s guilt is something that people experience when they’ve survived a life-threatening situation that others may not have experienced. It is commonly observed in Holocaust survivors, war veterans, lung transplant recipients, airplane crash survivors, and others who have lived through natural disasters.

In another Psychology Today blog post by Nancy Sherman, Ph.D. (2011), she describes that survivor’s guilt begins with an endless loop of “counterfactual thoughts that you could have or should have done otherwise, though, in fact, you did nothing wrong.” There are degrees of survivor’s guilt, but here are some possible symptoms.

Survivor Guilt’s Symptoms

  • Having Flashbacks
  • Irritability
  • Difficulties sleeping
  • Feeling numb, disconnected, immobilized
  • Not motivated
  • Helplessness
  • Experiencing physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and heart palpitations
  • Suicidal Feelings

While it may not be logical for someone to feel responsible for another person’s fate, guilt is something that people may not necessarily have control over. Experiencing survivor’s guilt is a typical response to loss. Even though not everyone suffers survivor’s guilt, it is a painful emotion to shake off.

The History of Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor’s guilt was first documented after the Holocaust. It became clear in the years that followed, that survivor’s guilt was more common than what was initially understood. Survivor’s guilt used to be its own diagnosis on the DSM, but then was removed and became part of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Despite that caveat, individuals can experience survivor’s guilt and PTSD independently from each other.

Predisposed Factors

Researcher Alan Spiegel wrote that when he studied the dreams of firestorm survivors, he found that victims of childhood trauma were more vulnerable to dreams about death. Their defenses were weakened by the ordeal. For survivors, unresolved past losses were their Achilles Heel to coping. Spiegel suggested for disaster survivors that remembering and exploring dreams can help access and deal with unresolved trauma.

Why is Survivor’s Guilt Complex?

The duration and intensity of survivor’s guilt vary from person to person. The underlying feelings are similar: feeling guilty that you survived when someone else died, and that you do not deserve to live when another person didn’t. Some of these feelings can include the impression that you could have done more to save another person or in other cases feeling guilt because a person died protecting you.

Some theorists have said that people may experience survivor’s guilt because they prefer to blame themselves for things outside of their control than to accept they are helpless.

Things You Can Do for Yourself or a Loved One Suffering from Survivor’s Guilt.

Survivor’s guilt is a tricky and challenging experience. Here are some tips to make that experience less stressful.

  1. Accept your feelings: Guilt is a stigmatized emotion because our loved ones or people around us may make us feel that feeling guilt is wrong. Guilt on its own is not a problem.  Acknowledge, accept, and process this emotion.
  2. You are not alone: You are not alone in your emotions. Find a support group or a safe space where you can share what you’re experiencing with others who understand what you’re going through.
  3. Your relief and your appreciation for your survival can co-exist with your grief: Celebrating your survival does not in any way detract your grief from those who did not survive.
  4. Grieve those who died: If the people who died were people you were not especially close to, still take the time to grieve and mourn in your own meaningful way.
  5. Do something your guilt: Whether your guilt is rational or irrational do something powerful with your guilt. Some suggestions include becoming a speaker and educating people what you learned from your trauma. Also, you can encourage your family and friends to talk about their end of life wishes.
  6. Stop obsessing over the “why”: It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of asking “why” a certain event or experience happened. No matter how long we obsessed over the “why,” we can’t change what happened. Even though it is difficult to let go of asking “why,” let’s seek ways of creating second chances.
  7. Enjoy life: It may be difficult to enjoy life when you’re dealing with guilt, but it’s still important to be happy for the life you have. Value that gift by writing down gratitudes, reciting positive affirmations, or enjoying the company of friends.
  8. Talk to a mental health professional: If struggling with survivor’s guilt is severely affecting other parts of your life, you may need to talk to someone who is a professional. Look for a mental health clinician in your area, especially someone who specializes in trauma because they likely have experience with this type of guilt.

It’s important to remember that survivor’s guilt, whether rational or irrational, is a normal reaction. It is not a sign of unhealthy grief even if people may diminish how you feel and say it’s wrong. Remember to accept and process grief. It’s not the easiest of things, but you will heal if you trust the process.