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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
. making the best of your life can be a tribute to your survival and to those who died
. take the opportunity to reevaluate the meaning of your life
. is your life all it can be?

• Recognize the reawakening of old issues
- survival may have triggered old feelings of worthlessness or unworthiness
- surviving may have amplified old messages that you received about not being worthy,
about being a nuisance, about not measuring up, and/or about not counting

• If guilt persists or disrupts life, seek appropriate therapeutic assistance

Self Help Magazine describes survivor guilt as a "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. "

Americans have had many collective traumatic incidents in their lives in recent years, with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, including the very recent Hurricane Irene.

Despite the fact that there was nothing they could have done to save others, the strong feelings of guilt remain that they survived and others did not, or their home was untouched while their neighbors' homes were destroyed.

Talk therapy (individual or group) is advised for anyone going through survivor guilt. And what many survivors interviewed around the world talk about is the highly therapeutic and meaningful work they go on to do, in memory of the injured or dead.

Fundraisers, awareness campaigns and hands-on help can help assure people that their survival was for a reason, and that guilt doesn't make sense when people change their lives for the better, after experiencing a traumatic event.


Gift From Within-PTSD Resources for Survivors and Caregivers. Survivor Guilt. Table 1. A Method for Processing Survivor's Guilt. Web. 9 Sept. 2011. http://www.giftfromwithin.org/html/Guilt-Following-Traumatic-Events.html

Why Not Me? Dealing with Survivor Guilt in the Aftermath of a Disaster. Donna Marzo, Psy.D. Web. Sept 12. 2011 http://www.selfhelpmagazine.com/articles/trauma/guilt.html

Reviewed September 12, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.

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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.