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

What Are the Different Types of Survivor’s Guilt?

Whenever tragedy strikes and someone's suddenly and unexpectedly killed, the event can create guilt in the minds of survivors. Many circumstances lead to tragic outcomes that affect the grief process and loss-related responses in those left behind. The manner and intensity of grief are different for everyone, and no two people ever suffer through loss in the same way. Survivors' guilt also affects individuals differently. 

Three unique types of survivor's guilt can affect a person struggling with making sense of their loss and their own survival. These loss responses affect those related to the person who died and others who see themselves as responsible for another person's death. Explained below are the different types of grief in more detail.

General

A general feeling of guilt can affect any survivor experiencing or causing the death of another person. They may experience guilt for surviving while others didn't and about their actions or inactions resulting in the deaths of others, even when unrelated to the underlying cause of death.

Parental

Parent survivor's guilt directly links to the death of a child that a parent may perceive themselves as being responsible for the outcome. This type of guilt can show up as remorse for driving a vehicle involved in an accident that ultimately killed their child, even when the parent wasn't negligent or didn't directly cause the accident. A parent may struggle for years with accepting their role in their child's death and may continue to feel guilty for the rest of their life. 

Survival

Survival guilt more closely relates to survivors of large-scale tragedies where they lived and others who perished, such as acts of terrorism, natural disasters, or mass shootings. This type of guilt doesn't always tie to a person's actions, and the feelings of guilt may manifest solely for having survived the tragedy without explanation.

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.  

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What Does Survivor’s Guilt Look and Feel Like

Survivor's guilt shows up in many ways, much like any other type of guilt. There are psychological and physical aspects to survivor's guilt that may often resemble PTSD that affects a person's day-to-day and ability to function normally. The challenge with this type of grief is how it interrupts a person's life on a deeper level, and it causes concern for those who can't cope with their guilt and shame. 

Survivor's guilt can show up differently for everyone who experiences loss and grief. Much like how no two people grieve the same way, no two individuals experience and process survivor's guilt similarly. Therefore, the effects vary drastically from person to person, even when they experienced the same events leading up to the loss. 

Survivor's guilt has some of the characteristics of other types of complicated grief that can include some or all of the following grief responses:

  • Sudden flashbacks of the event
  • Frequent panic attacks
  • Changes to sleeping patterns
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Regret and rumination
  • Hindsight Bias
  • Mood swings and anger issues

The above symptoms and reactions to grief can be debilitating to many individuals who can't process their loss in an otherwise healthy manner. Grief counseling and therapy may help those suffering find better solutions to how they handle their grief and accept how things happened to move forward from their loss. 

While survivor's guilt impacts every person's life experiencing it, the grief facing parents who've suffered the loss of a child through some fault of their own is one of the worst types of pain to endure. Some of the consequences of survivor guilt affecting parents might include changes to their relationships at home with their spouses, partners, and other children and long-term changes to their personalities.

In situations where survivor's guilt negatively affects relationships at home, parents may face additional struggles. This can be because they must live with the consequences of their actions every time they interact with other household members.

The guilt and shame may be too burdensome for them, leading them into more profound sorrow and despair. Bereaved parents suffering from survivor's guilt may also suffer from depression and thoughts of suicide. 

Professional mental health practitioners can help ease the effects of many of these symptoms. A bereaved individual can look forward to living a meaningful life after loss with proper care and follow-through.

Examples of Experiencing Survivor’s Guilt

There's no shortage of traumatic events happening daily in the cities and areas where we live. Sometimes these tragedies strike close to home even when families take every precaution to keep each other safe from harm. Unfortunately, no one can thoroughly plan for a catastrophe, and even the most mundane activities have the potential to lead to disaster. The below examples show in some small part how individuals experience survivor's guilt.

Plane crash survivors: Although accidents involving airplanes are relatively uncommon, they still occur, especially in smaller aircraft. These accidents involving smaller aircraft rarely make national news unless someone famous was on board.

However, the ensuing grief may be intolerable for the individuals who survive such accidents. For example, a business executive who decides to take the family on vacation in the company's private jet is the lone survivor following a crash. They may suffer greatly for their decision to go on holiday. 

At-fault auto accidents: Someone driving a vehicle involved in a crash, leaving some or all of its passengers dead, may never be able to drive again. These accidents are not uncommon in DUI accidents, driving while impaired, or otherwise in unsafe conditions. 

Mass shooting survivor: Persons who've experienced a mass shooting and have survived to recount the events often talk about their guilt for surviving. They find it challenging to accept that they lived while others died, even if the deceased persons were strangers to them.

Often, the survivors can't come to terms with the event's outcome and look for ways to drown out their pain. Suicide ideation and other thoughts of self-harm are also prevalent in this type of survivor. 

Accidents at home: Household accidents are a common cause of death in younger children. These tragedies can include children suffocating in a dryer while playing hide and seek, getting run over by a car as it's backing away from the driveway, or accidental swimming pool drownings. Because every one of these accidents is preventable, survivors have difficulty coping with guilt. 

Parents and those responsible for the accident or death face survivor's guilt when they start ruminating over the details of the accident and how they failed to protect the child. This can be the case even when they weren't present to prevent the tragedy. Parents and siblings who were at home when the accident happened may start assigning blame while struggling with feelings of guilt and shame.

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.

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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.

How Do People Typically Treat Survivor’s Guilt?

Survivor's guilt is often closely related to the causes and symptoms of PTSD, and mental health professionals treat this condition similarly. However, before seeking outside help, many survivors try coping with their grief at home by testing out different methods of self-help that may include some of the following:

Shifting blame back to its source

Often guilt can skew our perception of things and how they occurred. A person dealing with survivor's guilt may not recognize the actual cause of death in their loved ones or others. This may be because they're too busy blaming themselves for what happened.

For an individual to take back control of these debilitating thoughts, it's essential to take a step back and assess the situation once enough time's passed to allow for a fresh, new perspective. With renewed clarity, they may begin to see that there were outside forces to blame for how things happened. 

Reliving the trauma

Returning to the tragedy's time and place can help a bereaved individual remember some forgotten details of what happened and how it happened. Individuals may need to experiment with going back to relive the past by practicing self-hypnosis, meditation, and other mindfulness practices. As they begin to piece together bits and pieces of the tragedy, they may discover the hidden details of who or what was at fault. They can then process their grief from a different lens of memory and perception. 

EMDR

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a proven psychotherapy method that successfully treats survivor's guilt in many individuals. This treatment helps a person heal from guilt more quickly and effectively. It replaces traditional forms of psychotherapy with other healing practices that allow emotions to be processed at an unconscious level. These techniques often include the patient:

  1. Visualizing images related to the event
  2. Identifying any negative beliefs about their involvement
  3. Pinpointing the emotions and sensations felt as a response to their beliefs.

Traditional talk therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most common treatment for grief and trauma and was once the primary way mental health practitioners approached and treated survivors' guilt. More modern research and studies failed to show the effectiveness of talk therapy in survivors of traumatic experiences where other individuals lost their lives. Over time, treatment evolved from talk therapy to the more effective EDMR therapy today. 

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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