Survivor’s Guilt Explained: Definition & Examples

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When you live through a traumatic event, a common reaction is to feel guilty about having survived while others didn't. These feelings make up what is known as survivor's guilt. It's a type of grief sometimes felt after a tragedy and can happen to anyone who's seen, experienced, or survived a life-threatening event.

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It's not unusual for you to have these feelings of guilt. And, although you may be happy or relieved that you survived, you may be left confused as to why others didn't.  

Survivor’s guilt can reappear up to several years after the tragedy has occurred with and without treatment. You may begin to think that you don’t deserve to live when someone else died during the same event. When these feelings emerge, you may find yourself going from feeling joy and happiness to utter despair, grief, and sadness.

Keep reading if you wish to have more insight into this form of grief, and how it may be affecting you.

What is Survivor’s Guilt?

Survivor's guilt is a form of grief that may develop after experiencing such an event. It causes you to feel guilty about having survived when others didn't. This is especially true in cases where your rescuer died saving your life, you did all that you could to care for your parents, but they died anyway, or you were spared a hereditary illness that killed your sibling but not you. 

The feelings of powerlessness or helplessness over the deaths of others may overtake you. You may not know what to do when someone dies that you start feeling as if you could've done more for them to save them, or that you don't deserve to live.

These types of events may lead to the development of depression in some people if left untreated. Survivor's guilt can last up to three years or longer and can be treated to lessen its effects.

Examples of survivor’s guilt

Major life events can and do happen at any time and when least expected. No one plans for the moment when disaster strikes.

Most tragedies involve ordinary people on average days doing everyday things. Some examples of such events are:

  • Acts of terrorism
  • Natural disasters
  • Pandemics
  • Hereditary illness
  • Car accidents
  • House fires
  • Cancer
  • Dying while saving others
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Why Do People Have Survivor’s Guilt?

People experience this type of guilt when they can’t stop analyzing the series of events that led up to the loss of life. It’s brought on specifically as a result of feeling guilty for having survived tragedy while others didn’t.

You start to question a higher being, your existence, and those around you — seeking answers as to why things happened the way they did. You ask things like, “Why did I survive?” and, “Why did he die instead of me?” 

You may be struggling to understand these things, and begin to feel guilty when you place a higher value on the life of others than on your own. This can happen to anybody, yet everyone processes these traumatic events differently. When tragedy strikes, most survivors will experience grief and loss even when they didn’t know any of those that died. 

You should expect to go through the stages of grief as you grieve and continue on your path to healing from this. The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Some people are more likely than others to experience survivor’s guilt. Those that are more susceptible to it are those that suffer pre-existing underlying conditions.

Depression

When you are depressed, your outlook on life's events and everything around you is skewed by a cloud of negativity that seems to follow you. You look for ways to blame yourself for bad things that happen, even though you have no control over them. Depression may lead you to believe that life is valued differently for others, and thoughts of suicide may begin to enter your thoughts.

Depression and sadness are not the same thing. You might be sad that people have died, but you may feel hopeless and worthless toward your own survival.

Low self-esteem

If you have a history of suffering from low self-esteem, you are more prone to fall victim to survivor's guilt. When you don't have high morale or self-worth, you tend to feel guilty over having survived over others who died.

These feelings tend to come up because you may feel that their life was more valuable than yours, and you can't understand why you survived and they didn't.

This is where you might start by asking all the whys... “Why didn’t I leave sooner? Why didn’t I just stay home that night? Why did I invite them to go to the party?” Learning to value your life and understanding that no one human life is worth more than another may help gain a deeper sense of self.

Alcoholism and drug abuse

Victims of trauma sometimes deal with emotions that they find difficult to process and understand. You may feel that no one can relate to what you’ve experienced, and because of this, you may not seek the support of others.

When your thoughts and anxiety can overwhelm and lead you to depression, you may feel compelled to turn to alcohol or drugs to help you cope with your grief.

If this happens to you, know that there are other ways to deal with your pain and suffering. Turn to a trusted friend and talk about ways in which they can get you the help you need.

Lack of support system

When you have a group of people you know and trust that you can talk to about what you’ve experienced, it helps you to process things from a different perspective other than your own. Your support group will likely point out to you all the reasons why your life matters as much as others, and how you add value to theirs. 

If you don’t already have someone to turn to, seek out support groups made up of people who have experienced similar tragedies This may mean having to do an online search using key terms that best describe your unique situation, going to the local public health center, or the mental health services at your local hospital.

Taking the first step is usually the hardest. Once you find some options that may work well for you, schedule a time to drop in and see how you fit in with the group. Most are free to attend and don’t require you to make an appointment or to sign up ahead of time. 

Withdrawal from support system

Sometimes, when you do have a strong support system in place, you might be so overcome by guilt that you start to reject those around you. You may find yourself turning away from their love and support when you need it most. It's not uncommon for those who experience survivor's guilt to move toward total isolation from others.

Your loved ones may not know what to say to you or how to approach you once this happens. When you isolate yourself from others, dealing with the guilt that you may be experiencing may become much more difficult.

Knowing how to approach you becomes difficult for them as well. You may have misplaced your anger and lashed out against them, or you may have said things that you didn’t mean and later regretted. When someone loves and cares about you, it’s usually unconditionally. 

Those around you will understand that you are experiencing pain and suffering. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed about expressing to others your regret for the way you might’ve acted towards them. Most people will accept that you are grieving, and will brush any negative emotions aside.  

Can People Overcome Survivor’s Guilt?

Therapy is available for those who are trying to cope with survivor’s guilt, but one of the first steps you can take toward healing is learning to forgive yourself. Opening up to others and talking about what happened may help you to see things from a different perspective other than you may have previously thought.

When faced with a crisis, your mind and body react in ways that aren’t how you would normally. When you’ve finally removed yourself from that time and place, you see things from a different perspective. You’re no longer faced with life or death decisions, and you’re better able to see how you might have reacted differently.

It may be that you find that you did all that you could at the time and under the given circumstances. Or, it may be that you see that there wasn’t anything anyone could’ve done to change the outcome.

After trying some self-help techniques, you may find that you still need to seek therapy.

You may be experiencing nightmares and flashbacks where you recall the events and all of the horrific details. Your counselor or therapist will likely incorporate the use of art therapy, writing letters and reliving the experience over and over until it becomes “normal” in your mind as ways to help you overcome your guilt. They may recommend that you read books on grief, join a support group, or even seek spiritual counseling. 

Defining Survivor’s Guilt 

People process trauma in many different ways. There is no one way of defining what it means for everyone to experience guilt after having survived a major trauma in life. Why some people survive and others die isn’t something that we can define through science or by reading a textbook.

Some things in life are just inexplicable and we can’t make sense of them. When this happens to you or someone you love, having compassion for yourself and others will help you cope with these feelings of guilt. 

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