Coping with Survivor's Guilt: A Guide to Overcoming and Healing
Yesterday, I attended the funeral of my friend, Belinda. She was 29 - the same age as me. We met through her mom at a Brainstrust event a few years ago, on a quest to find more research - more anything to make the brain cancer diagnosis easier. I was sharing my story and her mom was in the audience. She later came up to me and said “you should meet my daughter, Belinda. She’s just like you. I think you’d really get on.” Fast forward a few months and Bel and I would meet regularly for museums bisits, expensive brunches on our sick-pays, city walks and endless conversations about things our well meaning parents and friends could never understand, because they weren’t living it like we were.
No one prepares you for the guilt that comes when someone so close to your journey takes a sudden turn for the worse on theirs. Guilt when you’re living because you know that person no longer can. And guilt when you’re not living, because you know they would if they could.
After speaking to a lady that I’m a mentor for, I noticed she’d experienced the exact same thing - “three of my friends have recently died of brain tumours.” Before you’re in the club, you see people diagnosed with brain cancer or tumours simply as ill people. You hear it, you probably exclaim how awful it is, and then you move on. But when you’re in the club, you see them as friends - real people with real humour, personalities and spirit.
Survivor's guilt is a hidden struggle that's rarely spoken about. But it exists, and this blog is for anyone grappling with loss in the community right now. Let's explore its causes, signs, and discover ways to cope and heal together. You don't have to face survivor's guilt alone.
Causes of Survivors Guilt
Survivor's guilt comes from a mix of things, like feeling empathy for those who didn't make it, thinking we could have done something to prevent the tragedy, and questioning our own worthiness of survival. Survivors can often deeply empathise with those who didn’t survive, imagining themselves in the place of the deceased, intensifying the guilt through emotional identification.
Signs and Symptoms of Survivor's Guilt
The hardest part is wondering whether you even have survivor's guilt. For a long time I’ve heard about other passes in the community and felt like it was an expectation; a fact of life when you’ve been diagnosed. But hearing the news of Bel hit differently.
I've since learned that survivor's guilt can make you feel guilty, ashamed, or blameful of yourself. You may have intrusive thoughts or flashbacks about the event, struggle to find joy in life, and experience emotional challenges like depression, anxiety, or PTSD. It can also lead to physical symptoms such as fatigue or loss of appetite.
Recognising the signs of survivor's guilt can help you or someone else identify if you’re experiencing it, and then take the steps needed to heal.
Here are some common feelings and signs to look out for:
- Overwhelming guilt: Feeling an intense sense of guilt for surviving while others didn’t. This guilt can be all-consuming and persistent.
- Persistent thoughts: Constantly thinking about the traumatic event or the day you heard the news and replaying it in your mind. Intrusive thoughts and flashbacks may also occur.
- Self-blame: Holding yourself responsible for the outcome, even if the event was beyond your control. You might believe you could have done something differently to prevent the tragedy.
- Questioning worthiness: Feeling unworthy of survival and believing that others were more deserving of life. Wondering why their life was taken and yours wasn’t.
- Emotional distress: Experiencing a range of negative emotions such as sadness, shame, anger, or a deep sense of emptiness.
- Difficulty finding joy: Struggling to find pleasure or enjoyment in activities that were once pleasurable. Feeling detached or emotionally numb.
- Social withdrawal: Withdrawing from social activities and isolating yourself from friends and family. Difficulty connecting with others and feeling like an outsider.
- Physical symptoms: Experiencing physical manifestations of stress, such as fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, or headaches.
If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, it’s important to seek support and reach out to professionals who can support you in navigating these complex emotions. You don't have to face survivor's guilt alone, and there are resources available to help you heal.
Tips on how to cope with survivors guilt
Overcoming survivor's guilt is a gradual process that requires time, self-reflection, and support. Here are some strategies that can help you in your journey of healing and overcoming survivor's guilt:
- Acknowledge and accept your feelings: It's important to recognise that survivor's guilt is a valid and natural response to a traumatic event. Give yourself permission to feel those emotions without judging or blaming yourself. This is a crucial step toward healing.
- Seek support: Reach out to people you trust, whether it's friends, family, or mental health professionals. Share your experiences and emotions with them. Having someone who understands and listens can help lighten the burden of survivor's guilt.
- Challenge guilt-based thoughts: Identify and question those negative thoughts that contribute to your feelings of guilt. Replace them with more realistic and compassionate thoughts. Remind yourself that your survival doesn't diminish the worth of others who didn't make it. Practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness.
- Engage in self-care: Make self-care a priority. Take care of your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. This can include activities like exercise, relaxation techniques (such as deep breathing or meditation), getting enough sleep, and doing things that bring you joy and fulfilment.
- Honour the memory of those lost: Find healthy ways to remember and pay tribute to those who didn't survive. This could involve creating a memorial, participating in support groups or charitable activities related to the event, or performing acts of kindness in their honour. Channelling your energy into positive actions can help transform guilt into a sense of purpose and meaning.
- Share your story and help others: Consider sharing your journey of overcoming survivor's guilt with others who may be going through similar struggles. Your insights and resilience can provide hope and support to others. Also, supporting and helping others who have experienced trauma can be a powerful way to heal and find meaning in your own experience.
- Try talking therapy: Sometimes, survivor's guilt may require professional intervention. Therapies like cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), or group therapy can be effective. A mental health professional can offer tailored guidance and support based on your specific needs.
Survivor's guilt is a complex and challenging emotion to navigate, but you don't have to face it alone. By acknowledging your feelings, seeking support, challenging negative thoughts, practising self-care, honouring the memory of those lost, sharing your story, and considering professional help, you can gradually heal and find a sense of purpose and meaning 💛