Survivor’s Guilt: Dealing With Being “One of the Lucky Ones”

Survivor’s Guilt: Dealing With Being “One of the Lucky Ones”

Imagine being in a tragic event such as an earthquake that killed dozens, hundreds or even thousands of people, but you survived. Yet you had to bury family members and friends. You were right next to someone who didn’t make it, and you don’t understand why them and not you?

Days, weeks and months go by and you can’t shake that feeling of guilt, loneliness and wondering if you could have done something different to save someone else. When everyone is telling you that you should be happy that you survived, you don’t feel lucky. You may even feel undeserving of having survived.

You may feel like you can’t talk to anyone about what you are going through, after all, what do you have to complain about? You lived! You survived. You were one of the lucky ones! However, for many people who survive such horrific events, being a survivor is just the beginning of what can be a life-long, debilitating relationship with survivor’s guilt.

What Is Survivors Guilt?

Survivor’s guilt is something that may develop in some people who experience and survive a traumatic, life-threatening event. It is something that is common in war veterans, airplane crash survivors, survivors of natural disasters and mass shootings.

In her blog on Psychology Today, the Stoic Warrior, Nancy Sherman, PhD states that survivor’s guilt begins with an endless feedback loop of “counterfactual thoughts that you could have or should have done otherwise, though in fact you did nothing wrong”.

Recently two of the Parkland mass shooting survivors killed themselves a year after the tragedy and one of the father’s of a girl killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting also committed suicide. According to their family and friends, they all had a very difficult time coping after the tragic event and appear to have been suffering from survivor’s guilt.

While not everyone who survives such tragedies will experience survivor’s guilt, some signs and symptoms include:

  • Having flashbacks
  • Feeling irritable
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling numb or disconnected
  • Feeling unmotivated
  • Feeling helpless
  • Feeling an intense sense or fear or anxiety
  • Experiencing physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and heart palpitations
  • Having suicidal thoughts

Survivor’s guilt is a normal response to loss, even if it may appear abnormal to someone from the outside looking in. They may be bewildered to why this seemingly “lucky” person is suddenly withdrawn, depressed or even suicidal.

Some studies suggest that individuals who suffer with depression or have experienced childhood abuse may be more susceptible to survivors remorse since both issues appear to break down a person’s healthy defenses and coping skills making dealing with such tragedies even more difficult.

If you or anyone who know may be suffering from survivor’s guilt, I  have gathered these helpful tips from the Psychology Today website:

  • Give yourself time to grieve.
  • Consider thinking about who was really responsible, if anyone.
  • Remember to take care of yourself physically and psychologically.
  • Think about what those who are close to you are feeling about the situation.
  • Remind yourself that you were given the gift of survival and feel good about it.
  • Try to be of service to someone or something.
  • Remind yourself that you’re not alone.
  • Be patient.
  • Share your feelings with those you trust.
  • Try to stick to a daily routine.
  • Consider journaling your feelings.
  • Get professional help, as needed.

I think it it important that after such tragic events, especially man made, horrible events like mass shootings, that while we are grieving for the ones we loss and reaching out to their families, that we don’t forget those who survived, the “lucky” ones, and reach out to them as well and continue to reach out and support them.

As you can see by the recent suicides, it can be a year or several years after the incident where the survivor reaches his or her breaking point. It also goes to show the bigger pictures of such tragedies and the very far reaching affects they can have on our society.

 

#orlandostrong

Orlando_Strong_1

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks undergoing two courses in trauma therapy, not realizing that an incredibly traumatic event would hit the city I live in.  What happened in my city of Orlando in the early morning hours of 6/12/2016 was an unimaginable tragedy.

I woke up that morning and saw all the commotion on the news and in my disoriented state, I was trying to figure out part of the world this tragedy had occurred in, not realizing that it was happening in my city, just fifteen minutes from where I live.

Just hours earlier I was on my way home from a night out on the town, not far from where the shooting happened, when I saw all the rescue vehicles headed in the opposite direction.  I had no idea that they were going to what would turn out to be the largest mass shooting in recent United States history.

This touched me. It hurts me, not just because so many people got killed, but that it happened in my backyard. It makes me angry. It touched everyone in the city somehow someway. I had never been to Pulse night club, but knew people who did.  My nephew knew two of the victims that got killed.

My sister, the Fire Marshall for the City of Orlando got called to that horrific scene and was shaken by the cell phones ringing on the bodies still inside of the club.

I watched on Facebook as many people I knew; fellow therapists and friends, shared pictures of people they knew and loved who were now gone.

Later that day, I was standing in line at the convenience store when the person in front of me found out that one of her friends was among the dead and right there in front of everyone she broke down in sadness and anger.  I was caught off guard. I had just gone out to buy some milk and there I was face to face with the impact of such a senseless crime.

I did the best I could verbally to console her so that she could get herself together enough to drive home, but it was an instant reminder of the many families and friends that were impacted by this man-made disaster.

Thinking about this tragedy, the nonsense of it all, the loss of life and the amount of trauma that will affect not only the surviving victims, but also the victims’ families, friends, first responders and the residence of the City Beautiful disheartens me.

This was a hate crime no matter how you slice it. Hatred of Americans, hatred of homosexuals, hatred of religious freedom, etc. We can’t let hate win.

No one should have to go through this. I could go on and write about gun control laws, terrorism, homophobia, religion or even post-traumatic stress disorder since this is a mental health blog, but I won’t.

I could go on about how the killer himself was probably struggling with his sexuality and hated that so many people could live freely and comfortably in their own identity, but I won’t give him that much of my energy .

What I want is this: for everyone to take some time to visit with and get to know someone of a different culture, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, age, whatever.

Get to know people who may seem different from you.

A few months ago I went to a gay nightclub for the first time just because it was the closes club in walking distance in downtown Minneapolis in negative ten degrees weather and I had a blast! It was something I thought I would never do and was initially uncomfortable with, but I had so much fun I went again the next night.

Stop being xenophobic!

Also take a moment and show love to those you love. My nephew just today told me that if he had not ran into me that Saturday night he had plans on going to that same nightclub and could have been among the dead or injured. Tomorrow is not promised for any of us.

There’s a lot of #prayfororlando going around, but besides praying, do something. If you can’t give blood or contribute to the GoFundMe  platform, then at least learn to embrace other human beings and end xenophobia, racism, sexism, religism and any other B.S. that contributes to hate.

On an end note, I am very proud of the way my city, my country and my world are banding together to show support and love for both the LBGTQ community and Orlando as a whole. That’s what love is and that’s the way it should be at all times, not just during times of tragedy.