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. 

How to Cope With Survivor’s Guilt

Most survivors of tragic events show resilience to tragedy. However, everyone reacts differently in the face of trauma and loss. The event's impact becomes part of the survivor's life's narrative and they hold it close for the remainder of their lifetimes. The accounts of how individuals hold on to the painful memories can either bring comfort or anguish as the years pass.

Some survivors who believe that the event directly endangered their lives or their loved ones may have a different survival experience. They are more prone to experience long-term mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, and certain abusive behaviors.

Coping with the guilt of surviving a significant life tragedy is possible with proper care and treatment. Here are some ways to help you manage when suffering through this type of tragedy.

Recognize who’s responsible

There are times when tragedy strikes, and there's no one directly to blame. Shouldering the blame for a loss that you couldn't do anything about is a normal grief reaction. Natural disasters and other random tragedies occur daily. These are events where no one could've predicted, prepared for, or prevented.

Regardless of the tragedy, it still seems impossible not to feel responsible in some way. Your brain can go into overdrive with guilt and regret leading to a distorted assessment of responsibility. Survivors usually have an inflated sense of personal responsibility when they couldn't possibly have known or prevented events, while guilt prevents feelings of helplessness and powerlessness.

Allow yourself time to grieve

Whenever disaster strikes, overwhelming feelings of shock and disbelief surface as a way of protecting you from experiencing the full-on effects of grief all at once. Delayed emotional responses are typically seen as psychological shields from these tragic events. Shielding can help you cope with sudden and unexpected losses.

Going through the motions of understanding and accepting the events taking place can take some time to sink in fully. Give yourself time to process the tragedy, your losses, and your responses to the events. Your perception of events will likely take shape within a few days after you've had time to make sense of things.

Consider your death’s impact on survivors

Frequently, thoughts and ideas of what-ifs consume a bereaved person following a tragedy. Survivor's guilt creeps in regardless of the relationship with those who died. Whenever an accident, natural disaster, or other tragic and unavoidable event strikes, a person who survives the occurrence may feel guilty for having survived and remorse that others died.

Feelings of guilt are valid even when the survivor didn't personally know those who died. When grappling with feelings of guilt, it helps to envision how your loved ones would feel if they lost you in the disaster instead. 

Embrace your second chance at life

Trauma changes your DNA, and surviving a tragedy will forever impact your life and your outlook on things. Whatever you thought to be true in your life before a tragic event taking place gets wiped out in an instance. You have to reimagine who you are now and who you will be after experiencing a traumatic event.

You don't ever move on from the pain and suffering you've experienced. You move forward from it. Focus on living a meaningful life and pour your pain into something positive. Consider doing something to help the other victims or survivors.

Stay present in each day

Remaining present each day will help you overcome some of the pain and sorrow from your experience. The impact of being present in your everyday life will hold you accountable for the decisions you make each day and may help you recognize that survivor's guilt is not conducive to healing.

Confront your feelings and seek support from your family, loved ones, and even professional counseling when needed. You can expect there to be a lot of coping, learning, and trying to understand what's happened and how you survived while others didn't. You may benefit from going back to where the tragedy occurred to help process your feelings. 

How to Help a Loved One Deal With Survivor’s Guilt

In the aftermath of a disaster, people often experience different stages of grief and healing. A person who’s suffered through tragedy will typically undergo feelings of shock, disbelief, anger, and bargaining before fully coming to terms with their loss.

The healing process can take longer for a survivor of a tragic event where others present weren’t so lucky. Helping a loved one get through the first few months following a tragedy can help normalize some immediate feelings of fear, anxiety, and helplessness. The tips below may save your loved one from experiencing a more profound grief reaction following a tragic experience.

Encourage them to get the support they need

Social support is one of the most significant factors in people recovering from tragic events. A victim or survivor of a tragedy must get the proper and ongoing social support from their loved ones. Friends and family can play a crucial role in helping survivors heal from the trauma following a disaster, especially in those where others died, and your loved one survived. 

Survivor's guilt is responsible for many survivors feeling helpless and powerless, thus contributing to low feelings of self-worth, anxiety, and chronic sadness or depression. When friends and family gather in support, it may help ease your loved one's feelings of guilt and remorse.

Look out for substance abuse issues

Although survivors always carry the tragedy with them, they do eventually heal from it. Unfortunately, for many survivors, the long healing journey may be too much for them to bear, and they turn to substance abuse to help them cope.

Most survivors will enter a long-term phase a few months following the event. They will continue to experience flashbacks, anxiety, and moments of relapse. It may take them a few months of having these periods of adjustment to get back to their everyday lives. These periods of flashbacks and debilitating anxiety are the time to look for self-medication or substance abuse that may require specialized care.  

Help them make amends with themselves

Self-forgiveness is an essential part of the healing process following a tragic event, especially where a loved one has died. Forgiving oneself requires a deliberate decision to let go of the anger, guilt, and resentment resulting from surviving an event where others lost their lives.

Although individuals are more likely to forgive others in accident cases or unforeseen circumstances leading to a tragedy, they are less forgiving of themselves. Encourage your loved one to forgive themselves and use the event as a learning lesson moving forward. Accepting responsibility, showing remorse, restoring, and renewal are all part of forgiveness.

Acknowledge their experience

Supporting someone who's experienced a tragedy starts with acknowledging what they've been through and validating their feelings. Survivors of disaster will often express an array of emotions ranging from guilt and sadness to remorse. These feelings can also turn to feelings of relief and gratitude for having survived the incident, leading to deeper feelings of guilt.

These feelings are all normal after experiencing an unforeseen event leading to the death of others in the proximity of the survivor. Nothing prepares us for how we'll react in the given or similar circumstances.

Create a safe environment for expression

Allow your loved one to talk about the event leading up to the tragedy. Offer the survivor a safe space for open communication where they can openly share their experience with you. They may need to talk about what happened, what they experienced during the event, and the immediate aftermath. Listen to them without giving any opinions or passing judgment.

The goal is to allow the survivor to open up to share as much or as little as they feel comfortable doing. Hold back on becoming emotionally reactive by demonstrating kindness and patience.

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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