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Why Did I Get to Live? Survivor Guilt and Why it Happens

By HERWriter Guide
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Mental Health related image Photo: Getty Images

We just commemorated the tenth anniversary of 9/11. It's still an abysmally hard day for those directly affected and even for those of us who watched the attacks in horror on our TV sets. The survivors have gone on to live their lives, some with permanent health problems, others having lost loved ones, knowing they never had the chance to say goodbye.

Many who survived the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon have moved on with something else embedded inside. It's known as survivor guilt and it can lead to anxiety, depression and the physical consequences that often accompany stress like self-medication and generally not taking care of the physical body when the mind is in distress.

Survivor guilt is linked with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a syndrome that affects many people after a traumatic experience like war, a personal attack, a horrific accident or other shocking occurrence in a person's life. It doesn't have to be a result of terrorism or war. It can occur from a car accident or witnessing a traumatic event.

What survivor guilt means in simple terms is that people are grateful to be alive after a shocking event, but feel terribly guilty that others died. Their questions can't really be answered: why did I live? Why did the person next to me die? Is there some special reason I survived and they didn't?

Dr. Kathleen Nadar, D.S.W. wrote an article about survivor guilt for the website Guilt From Within, an organization dedicated to the survivors and caregivers of those with PTSD. She outlines the process of understanding, living and ending survivor's guilt. Sections can be read here:

• Thank goodness, you survived!
- more people than you know are happy that you survived
- we are saddened by so many deaths
- even if the rest of your life seems insignificant to you, we are relieved that you are alive

• Know that there is no offense in surviving
- it is good to survive
- it is okay to delight in being alive

• Feel free to reassess your life
- reassess what is valuable to you
- make the best of your life

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EmpowHER Guest

The surfacing of old issues such as not counting or being considered a nuisance resonated with me. Would you elucidate on ways to effectively deal with these emotions as an adult?

February 12, 2015 - 2:10pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.