The Cure for Survivor’s Guilt

No one escapes guilty feelings after a death of someone they love.  Like a cruel butler your mind relentlessly searches every cabinet of your history and then serves you platter after platter of all the things you did wrong. One of the painful offerings is the guilt of being the one who lives.  This is known as survivor’s guilt.  It is mostly associated with those who’ve survived natural disasters, combat or accidents where people you were with or were supposed to be with died, but you didn’t.  However, I think all people who grieve have some inner confrontation with survivor’s guilt in an existential sense.

Whether you have actual or existential survivor’s guilt, it usually comes in the form of a question like, “Why am I allowed to live while the person who died does not?”  It’s a fair question, but the tendency is to stop there.  To just live with the question and let it haunt you and torment you is not fair.  Some will punish themselves with it for the rest of their lives. That’s really sad and no way to live or honor the person that died.  The more courageous challenge is to actually answer the question.

That’s right.  Answer the question.  Why ARE you allowed to live, when the other person died?  Well?  Why are you?  I’m not being a smart ass or anything, I just think, if you are going to ask yourself that question, you deserve an answer. If you have a negative self-concept, you may automatically think, “I don’t deserve to live.”  But, that’s not a real answer because that’s just your self-hate talking.  I’m looking for something a little more honest and deeper than that.  I’m just looking for facts.  Let me help you out here.

Why are you allowed to live when the person who does not?  The answer is simply:  because YOU’RE STILL ALIVE.  Richard Bach said, “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished:  if you’re alive, it isn’t.”  You’re here.  That’s the answer to the question.   It’s not a question of worthiness.  We are all going to die and the timing of our death is not personal.  You have some living to do.  How do we know?  Because you’re alive.   If you do decide to spend your life ruminating on the question of why you’re alive and someone else isn’t instead of focused on the being alive apart, then you aren’t really living.  In Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly, she interviewed people who suffered losses and one of them said, “When you honor what you have, you honor what I’ve lost.”  So, lose the question and stop feeling guilty for living.  Living fully IS the path to honoring those whose life was cut too short.

Important Note:  If you can’t stop focusing on the question of “Why not me?” and it truly haunts you, then it’s time to get some help from a professional counselor.  I recommend someone who is experienced working with someone who has experienced trauma (that my dear, would be you – it’s okay.  Take the next step and find someone today).

Ginkgo Leaf

Elizabeth Kupferman is a counselor in Southlake, Texas (Dallas/Fort Worth area) dedicated to helping women overcome depression, grief, and anxiety so they can find happiness and achieve their dreams.

Creative Commons License "The Cure for Survivor’s Guilt" by Elizabeth Kupferman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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