I think most of us have heard the expression 'survivor guilt' - that feeling of guilt or some kind of culpability when we survive an accident that killed or badly harmed someone else.
Holocaust and genocides, including the Nazi era and others (Rwanda, Kurdistan, Darfur to name just a few) have also produced much survivor guilt.
And it does not have to be an accident or a major disaster or war. You have kids and your friend just had her fourth miscarriage. Your newborn is healthy and your cousin's newborn has a severe disability. Any of these incidences can produce a kind of guilt that makes you feel depressed over the fact that you (or your baby/family member) is ok.
Self Help Magazine describes survivor guilt as "phenomenon often experienced by those who escape from a disaster that seriously injures and kills others. An individual dealing with this particular type of guilt may believe that they experienced a good fortune at the expense of others and that by attempting to save their own lives, they intentionally harmed others. "
Additionally, with regard to major trauma (accident/war/disaster) post-traumatic stress syndrome can be a factor.
Closer to home, people who survived Hurricane Katrina but had many friends and neighbors die, felt hopeless, helpless and guilty. Survivors of 9/11 have experienced the same feelings and are left to wonder if they had died - might someone they cared abou lived?
These feelings are normal.
Self Help also advises people to seek help. There are many ways one can work to avoid or deal with survivor guilt.
"Talk, talk and then talk some more. One of the most effective ways to reduce feelings of isolation, withdrawal and helplessness is to share our experiences with one another. The recent terrorist attack was experienced by millions of people -- some from ground zero and some from 3,000 miles away. Nonetheless, we all have a "story" to share. One did not necessarily need to be at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon at the time of the disaster to experience survivor guilt. The point is that there are lots of people out there to talk with in both personal and professional arenas.
Restore a sense of safety and stability. Return to routines as soon as you can. Routines provide a sense of familiarity and competence to our daily lives. Engage in work and play. Return to exercise routines and hobbies. Initially, the usual joy that accompanies these activities may not be present, but the physiological effects will increase endorphin levels that in turn may lead to reduced feelings of fatigue and powerlessness.
Challenge irrational thoughts. Ask yourself what you truly could have done at the time of the disaster. Remind yourself who is to blame -- you are not to blame. Grieve for those who perished and for the loss of innocence. But, do not accept responsibility for that loss. Often in revisiting the details of a disaster, one realizes that they did engage in actions to preserve life and safety. In recounting his experience, Ray realized that he not only helped others out of the building, but made several stops as he ran from the crumbling building to visually track colleagues who were running behind him.
Take an asset/strength inventory. What qualities or strategies have helped you through times of stress or crisis before? Call upon those strengths. Remember that you were strong and resilient in your efforts to survive. If you did not have this resolve the magnitude of the disaster would have been even greater.
Help in the recovery effort. Take action -- action makes us feel real and alive again. Action helps to alleviate feelings of guilt because it prompts us to change our focus from events of the past to events of the present. It feels good to do something in the effort to recover from a disaster (i.e., donate blood, food or clothing; volunteer time; write about your experience, etc.).
Connect with your support network. Through connection with others we feel alive, understood and meaningful. Whether it is your partner, gym, place of worship, job, or family -- get connected. Remind yourself of the things and people that are important in your life. "
Has your luck, escape or even happy experience triggered guilt? How? How did you deal with it?
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