Dr. Mel Tavares
By definition, Survivor's Guilt is the feeling of guilt after surviving a life-threatening traumatic event, when others did not. The complexity increases depending on one's personality and tendency to feel responsible for the lives and actions of others.
Those prone to suffer from Survivor's Guilt include first responders, crash survivors, natural disaster survivors, war veterans, and witnesses to violent events. Many who have lost a loved one to suicide also struggle with guilt, as do those whose loved one passes away from a terminal illness. Front line healthcare workers and family members are experiencing Survivor's Guilt in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly those who tested positive and survived. I've listed out some of the reasons a person may experience Survivor's Guilt, but certainly it is not an exhaustive list.
Regardless of what circumstance precipitated Survivor's Guilt, symptoms are similar for many. Obsessive reoccurring thoughts of what was and was not done before, during, and after the crisis haunt survivors relentlessly day and night. Many battle depression, sleep disorders, confusion, headaches, and stomach aches. Others struggle with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and in some cases, become suicidal as a result of surviving.
Survivor's Guilt is Complex
If you are battling Survivor's Guilt or know of someone who is, there is hope and help available. Just giving a person the opportunity to express their feelings and being a listening ear may be all that is needed to allow a Survivor to break free from the guilt.
Self-care is underrated in our lives, but is a necessary step in emotional recovery. Taking the time out to rest and rejuvenate is critical to the rebuilding process in the brain and body, following trauma. Some ideas for self-care may include going outside for a walk or to sit at the beach, reading a book, listening to music, or meeting a friend for dinner. Eating nutritional food and being active are essential components to regaining all aspects of health, as all have been impacted by the overwhelming guilt.
The Spiritual Component
Survivor's Guilt is real and effects people of all walks of life, young and old alike. The person will ask questions, all of which are normal. "Why him, not me?", "Why did God allow this?", and so many other questions come into the mind of the Survivor.
People mean well but giving platitudes such as 'God needed him more' or 'It was God's time for him' are not helpful in this situation. The truth is that Scripture never fully addresses all of the 'whys' for us. Many questions we ask throughout life will not be given this side of heaven, including these.
What Scripture does do is point us to the Comforter and Lover of Our Souls. Jesus is more than enough for us. We may not know this side of heaven why he allowed one to Survive and other to pass into eternity, but whether you are reading this as a Survivor, a friend of a Survivor, or a lay counselor; know that God cares. It's ok to cry and have human emotions. Even Jesus wept, showing His humanity. It's ok to question, and Jesus did also. Isaiah 53:4 tells us he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. He is able to empathize and bring comfort in the situation.
When Professional Help is Needed
Because Survivor's Guilt is complex, grief is also a component of the mixed emotions a person most likely is feeling. There are online and in-person groups available, including GriefShare, which I've mentioned in previous blogs. Local churches offer pastoral counseling services. Many people recover without professional help, while others may need to see a certified mental health counselor to work through the feelings of guilt.
Survivor's Guilt is real and impacts tens of thousands of people a year. Leaving the guilt untreated can lead to further mental and physical health issues. Help is available and I encourage you to seek resources and seek God's comfort.