What Is Survivor Guilt and How To Help Those Who Suffer From It

What Is Survivor Guilt and How To Help Those Who Suffer From It

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On June 12, 2016, a gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 others inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, FL. The gunman was killed by Orlando police after a three-hour standoff. It was the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in the U.S., and the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in the U.S. The massacre was widely denounced both as an act of terrorism and a hate crime.*

Of the 53 people that survived, many are now experiencing what’s known as survivor guilt.

What is survivor guilt?

Survivor guilt is best described as a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not.

The survivor may feel guilty in response to events that happened during the trauma, such as what s/he did or did not do, what s/he did or did not say, or maybe becoming paralyzed with fear in the moment.  It is also common for survivors to experience guilt in connection with other survivors and/or for those who suffered more or perished. For example, a survivor may feel guilty if another victim saved them or prevented harm in some way, especially if these actions involved another person becoming harmed or dying as a result of heroic actions. Feeling guilty for not saving other victims or feeling guilty for not doing enough to help others during the event can also be experienced by survivors, even if there was no opportunity to rescue.

Survivor guilt can weight heavily on the human spirit. Feeling guilty is a common theme among survivors of trauma and helps facilitate the healing process, although other feelings may also come up.

Survivor guilt can be a difficult condition to process and understand.  How could and why would someone feel guilty for being alive?  Despite how foreign this concept may seem to some, it is a real feeling suffered by all types of people, regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, or race.

Patience Carter, a victim of the Pulse Nightclub massacre, eloquently wrote about her feelings of being a survivor within days of the tragic event. She described feelings of guilt in addition to feeling relieved, yet cautious in expressing her feelings on survival, writing the following:

“The guilt of being alive is heavy. Wanting to smile about surviving, but not sure if the people around you are ready. As the world mourns, the victims killed and viciously slain, I feel guilty for screaming about my legs in pain. Because I could feel nothing like the other 49 who weren’t so lucky to feel this pain of mine. I never thought in a million years that this could happen. I never thought in a million years my eyes could witness something so tragic.”

Encapsulating the complexity of survivorship, Patience Carter described a spectrum of emotion and unique bind inherent within survivor guilt.  In her poem, we hear the feelings of conflict.

As a survivor, she questioned the space for her own experience, feeling unsure if having a voice about her own experience was OK because other victims (and their loved ones) had it worse. As the audience, we hear the comparisons in her poem.  Patience goes on to say:

“The guilt of feeling lucky to be alive is heavy. It’s like the weight of the ocean’s walls crushing uncontrolled by levies.”

This is a beautiful illustration of the weight of surviving.

How to know if someone has survivor guilt

There are two key points to consider when attempting to identify if someone is suffering from survivor guilt.

1. The person has been through a traumatic event.

The event could be the most recent terror attack, such as the Orlando nightclub shooting.  The event could be returning from war, becoming a refugee, surviving a school shooting or being a survivor of the 9/11 attacks.  Surviving any type of event that would be considered an extraordinary event is a precursor to survivor guilt.

2. Since surviving the traumatic event, you see a change in behavior.

With survivor guilt, it is common to observe a difference in the survivor’s demeanor and/or actions.  You may notice small to fairly significant changes in behavior, with the most common signs and symptoms of survivor guilt being as follows:

  • Change in mood
  • Increased feelings of anxiety, anger, depression
  • Mood swings
  • An increased startle response
  • Hyper-vigilance to surroundings
  • Reports of the inability to sleep well (insomnia)
  • Report of nightmares
  • Isolating behavior (not wanting to be around other people)
  • Use of guilt-laden language (“I still can’t believe it.  I feel like it should have been me.  Why did I survive and s/he didn’t!? I don’t deserve to be here.”)

I want to emphasize that change in mood, a sense of disbelief or guilt about the traumatic event, an increase in insomnia, nightmares, isolating behavior, verbally or mentally reliving the event and/or expressing guilt about surviving the event are normal. These symptoms are indicators of survivor guilt and are highest immediately after a traumatic event.

It’s OK for you to show concern for the survivor in your life, especially if you witness s/he experiencing these symptoms of survivor guilt.

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How to help support someone with survivor guilt

Survivor guilt is a normal experience for survivors and within time can resolve on its own, with symptoms decreasing in frequency and intensity. So, how can you help?

To help support a survivor through survivor guilt follow these tips.

  1. Acknowledge what they have been through. Just as Patience Carter expressed feeling an array of emotions from relief, to joy, to guilt to sadness, acknowledge the normalcy in experiencing an unusual event and the accompanying array of emotions.
  2. Allow time to mourn. Give the survivor time and space to process their experience and mourn as need be.  Mourning takes time, and it’s critical to give the survivor their own time and space to sort through their feelings and thoughts.  Don’t push the survivor to “move on” and “get over it.”  That type of language is not helpful and more accurately reflects your own discomfort.
  3. Create an environment that facilitates openness.  Let the survivor know it is OK to talk about the event and feelings connected to it.  Actively listen, without judgement or opinions, allowing the survivor to share as much or as little as desired. Conversely, if you feel unable to attentively listen without forcefully giving your opinion or becoming emotionally reactive, direct the survivor to more supportive people.
  4. Demonstrate kindness and patience.  The survivor has been through a lot.  If s/he is actively differently, be patient, show warmth and practice unconditional positive regard.
  5. Act normal. You might feel uncomfortable or unsure about how to act after the event.  The best advice is to act as normal as possible. This will help the survivor better adjust to life after the event.
  6. Check-in. With the survivor now safe and acclimating to everyday life, know that it is OK to check-in. If you notice new or unusual behavior, ask how s/he is doing and offer support. Seize a time that feels right, which shouldn’t be in the height of an argument or if you (or the survivor) are preoccupied.
  7. Suggest professional help. While there is no timeline for healing and mourning, if after a few months the survivor continues to act differently or display unusual behavior, gently suggest talking with a therapist.  Therapists are trained in helping people better understand difficult emotions.  Survivor guilt can morph into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder if left untreated and seeking professional help earlier on can decrease periods of suffering. In therapy, the survivor can learn how to manage symptoms, minimizing painful thoughts/emotions and finding pleasure in life again.  Trauma therapists are best equipped to help survivors work through survivor guilt.

If you have questions regarding how to help someone in you life, contact me.  I’m here to help.

*Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_Orlando_nightclub_shooting

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Lori provides counseling to adults and couples in a comfortable environment in Rittenhouse Square. Through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MbSR), she helps individuals live fuller lives.

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