It is often hard to understand why bad things happen. What is even worse is trying to wrap our heads around the experience of a bad situation that may have resulted in the fatality of persons around us, yet we were blessed with the gift of sustained life. The big question that always follow is Why am I alive? Or why was I allowed to survive?
Survivor’s guilt is a response to an event in which someone else experienced loss, but you did not. While the name implies this to be a response to the loss of life, it could also be the loss of property, health, identity, or several other things that are important to people.
This event can range from minor, such as a friend breaking their wrist while you are both hiking, to major, such as a car accident or plane crash that takes the lives of others but leaves you alive. Traumatic events such as those can lead to more severe guilty feelings and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other events that can lead to survivor’s guilt include mass shootings, natural disasters, life-changing events such as 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Symptoms of Survivor’s Guilt
When people survive a traumatic event, they may experience feelings of guilt about:
surviving when others did not
what they did during the traumatic event
what they did not do during the traumatic event
People with survivor’s guilt can often experience other symptoms of PTSD, including:
flashbacks of the traumatic event
obsessive thoughts about the event
irritability and anger
feelings of helplessness and disconnection
fear and confusion
lack of motivation
nausea or stomachache
thoughts of suicide
As with PTSD, survivor’s guilt may cause a person to see the world as an unfair and unsafe place.
Coping with Survivor’s Guilt
If you find yourself experiencing feelings of guilt following an aversive event, there are things you can do to manage those emotions. Some self-help strategies that you may find effective:
Allow yourself to grieve. It is important to acknowledge the people who were lost and allow yourself to mourn. Give yourself time and take things at your own pace.
Do something positive. Whether it is for yourself or for others, take those feelings and direct them toward making a change in the world.
Sometimes just doing simple things for another person can help alleviate feelings of guilt.
Focus on the outside factors that led to an event. Shifting your focus on the external variables that created the situation can help you let go of the self-blame that contributes to feelings of guilt.
Practice self-forgiveness. Even if your actions were responsible for harm to another person, learning how to forgive yourself can help you move forward and regain a positive outlook
Remember that these feelings are common. Experiencing guilt doesn’t mean that you’re guilty of doing anything wrong. Sadness, fear, anxiety, grief, and, yes, guilt are completely normal responses in the aftermath of a tragedy. It’s OK to feel happy about your own luck while at the same time mourning the fate of others.
Talk to a psychologist or counselor if your symptoms are severe or your feelings of guilt are interfering with your ability to function normally.