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Thursday 25 September 2014

Survivor's Guilt: Overcoming Remorse

by Stephen B.Chadwick, MA Counselling Psychology.

Survivor guilt is typical in persons who have experienced a major (traumatic usually) event wherein they were the sole survivor or one of the few survivors. The after-effects mostly involve reviewing or going over the event(s) and while most survivors of the event consider themselves grateful  and fortunate to have survived, they are also often left with feelings of guilt, (over)concern about the the fate of the victims and the victims' families and like other survivors of truama, needing to understand why and how to put the event into perspective.

And this phenomenon applies whether it is a major catastrophe  or even it is just simply an organizational reshuffle or downsizing within a business, where an entire staff is let go and only 2 or 3 people are left.

In these situations, the survivors look to find meaning for their survival, sometimes to "justify" it in their own minds, to make an existential rationale for their survival and often to memorialize those who did not survive.

Being King Rat means splitting off a piece of your humanity

So to begin with, when I speak of "survivor guilt" I am not talking about the popular reality t.v. series "Survivor", although I could, as most reality t.v. shows such as "Survivor", which has spawned all the other types of survivor-premise shows: Big Brother, America's Next Top Model, Top Chef, etc., etc.,  and so on. Unfortunately such shows tap into the most base level of human nature and reduce the participants to an almost debasing, animalistic nature where only the King Rat wins. It also of course, taps into unsatisfied narcissistic desires to be a star, be loved , be appreciated or in the words of Andy Warhol -- "that in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes". Of course, being King Rat or sole survivor of such t.v. shows, the participant may likely indeed have residual feelings of guilt and concern, as they had to resort to cut-throat measures in order to survive and generally when anyone does this, they have to "cut off" or "split off" a piece of their humanity in order to survive.

But more likely these feelings would surface in people for example who had survived the tsunami in Thailand in 2004, or the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, or .....
The survivor is left wondering "Why?" or "Why me?"or "Why me and not this person over here? He/she was far better equipped/prepared/stronger, etc.etc."
Father Robert Barron, a Catholic priest ( who is a speaker and lecturer with a particular psychological bent in his approach to his sermons, notes that in situations like this, the survivor struggles with making meaning of the traumatic event. He proposes that only with some degree of belief in faith (in God) can a survivor with survivor guilt ever make sense of what has happened to him or her.

Father(Fr.) Robert Barron
Now, dear friends, you may or may not agree with Fr. Barron, or his approach to God or even his belief in God at all. So be it. But the need to "make meaning" from tragedy or even meaning from your life after a major disaster, like for example MH17, which may leave many people dead and many more casualties, will often leave the survivor, just like survivors from the concentration camps of World War II or Vietnam, or The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990's or the Genocide in Rwanda or what has recently happened in Eastern Ukraine or with the Isis militants or with the recent outbreak of Ebola which threatens to explode across the rest of the African countries.... or... or... or... or.... -- is reason for the survivors to try to make sense of the destructive chaos. Only when someone can see some rationale behind or for the misery, is it possible to integrate the traumatic memory into the person's history. Otherwise life just seems like a  really crappy, bad nightmare.

Existentialism or .... Why am I on this planet anyways?

Now for those who are really not into that whole theological-God thing, or who may be scared off by it or who think it is just superstitious nonsense or who, in the words of Karl Marx, believes that "Religion is the opium of the people", I would say: "well and good". However, it still leaves us in an irrational, incomprehensible world.
However, in walks Viktor Frankl with his ideas on existentialism.

Now Friends, you may probably ask: "What on earth is Existentialism?" Indeed!

Existentialism is really just a fancy-shmancy word for describing:


In other words, why do I (even) exist?
Viktor Frankl had a most interesting life.
He was a Jewish psychoanalyst and psychiatrist from Vienna who survived Auschwitz after most of his family (including his first wife) died in either this or other concentration camps. At one point Frankl recalled being beaten by a Nazi soldier, while carrying a load and he recalled at that moment how he envisioned his future: in a lecture hall, speaking to an audience. This and other positive focus kept meaning for Frankl and quite literally kept him alive.

Now, for most people who would have lost everything -- family, loved ones, home, career, one might be too overwhelmed by trauma, guilt, anxiety and depression to have even kept on living, let alone survive or thrive and try to find "meaning" out of the loss.

But as Frankl recalls, he remembers being beaten by a Nazi officer while struggling to lift his load of  bricks. Frankl recalls that at that moment he had an epiphany or vision, where he saw himself speaking to a room full of colleagues about his experiences. It was this mustard seed of belief which sustained Viktor Frankl to stand up and continue, rather than give up and die. Frankl later posited that our "existentialism" or reason for being on this planet is fundamental to everyone.

And as I mentioned, the confusion and bewilderment of survivors and survivor guilt happens most dramatically  in disasters, but it also happens in regular life.

Sole Survivor after Corporate Downsize

I recall once hearing a story about a radio station in Vancouver. All the staff was completely laid off due to downsizing or a change in management and all that was left were two of the broadcasters. One of the broadcasters related a dream/nightmare (on air, yet!) of how they found themselves in a basement surrounded by dead bodies and bags. The broadcaster related how he/she wondered what he/she was supposed to do with all these bodies and body bags.

So, clearly the radio broadcaster was also suffering from "survivor guilt", however the dead bodies in this instance were all the "heads that rolled" at the radio station when the workers lost their jobs.

After one of these situations, whether it involves loss of life or loss of job, or really loss of anything where there is a "cohort" or a group of people who experienced something together,  the survivors of course are bewildered and in shock. But they are also feeling tremendously guilty, especially if they feel that others (in their estimation) should have survived or if others should have survived rather than them.

Most people believe that the world should be a fair and equitable place.

So then how do they cope with this?
Firstly, usually by understanding that they are not guilty for the loss. This is not easy as understandably they believe that "others are more worthy". And because, whether we would like to discount it or not, most people believe that the world should be a fair and equitable place. Whether they actually believe it or not, is one thing. But if they did not believe it, then survivor guilt would not be a phenomenon. Life would come and go with the spin of a dial. It is precisely because we believe that life should be fair, that we have survivor guilt.
The second thing that someone who is experiencing survivor guilt may do is look for a reason for their survival, again: "why me? (and not her or him or them)". They may drive themselves crazy in order to find a reason or rationale for why they survived and the other(s) didn't.  Whether or not they find a reason depends on whether or not they find a reason that "fits" with them.

Finally, one of the best ways in which survivors survive and thus overcome survivor guilt is through memorializing. Therefore, someone who survives, while all his or her other cohort members have perished, may often try to continue or dedicate their memory by dedicating themselves to some cause.
Candace Lightner
Fadela Amara

So for example, Candace Lightner who lost her daughter due to a drunk driver founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving or M.A.D.D.

Or Fadela Amara and Samira Bellil, the latter of whom I wrote about in an earlier post, founded Ni Putes Ni Soumises, which aims to raise consciousness about violence against women in the suburban areas of Paris, Lyons and Toulouse.

Or most recently the group called:
 "The Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia", who, since 1989, has looked to expose human rights violations in the Russian army, most notably, recently with the undeclared war against Ukraine. Find their link in English here: or their homepage:  

It is by memorializing the ones that have been lost, that they continue to live in the survivors.

Take Care


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