What You Should Know About Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor’s guilt is a very special form of grief. It can be displayed in a variety of ways, and in some cases people may not be able to identify it in themselves. Like all forms of grief, it’s important to work through it in a healthy and constructive way. Keep reading to learn more about survivor’s guilt- what it is, what common symptoms are, and some helpful coping techniques.

What you should know about survivor's guilt

Who is susceptible to survivor’s guilt?

Survivor’s guilt is often seen in people who survive a very significant trauma. Often, this trauma involves the death of other people. Some common victims of survivor’s guilt include veterans, first responders, and survivors of acts of terrorism. However, there are other sources of survivor’s guilt such as transplant recipients, children in families affected by miscarriage, those with loved ones who died by suicide, and many other possible causes. Survivor’s guilt, though often experienced by those directly involved with the trauma, can also impact those who were nowhere near the situation or circumstance. As is the case with any type of grief, it is also very specific to the individual and situation. People may experience survivor’s guilt even when they did not know the victim or situation personally.

What are some signs of survivor’s guilt?

While the effects of survivor’s guilt vary from person to person, there are a few common symptoms in people who experience this unique form of grief:

  • Sense of depression or anxiety
  • Nightmares or flashbacks
  • Numbness/ feeling unattached to reality
  • Questioning of one’s own mortality
  • Feelings of deep regret or “unworthiness”
  • Feelings of being restless or helpless
  • Irritability and insomnia

These feelings are certainly normal after such a tragedy, and are important to acknowledge as part of the healing process. However, if you notice that your symptoms persist for several months with no good days it may be a good idea to seek professional counseling. Always seek professional help if you have thoughts about harming yourself or others.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

What are some ways to cope with survivor’s guilt?

Remember that openly accepting your grief is the first step toward long term healing. Since grief is unique to each person, finding a coping mechanism that works for you may take some time. With that in mind, here are a few good places to start:

  1. Self-care

It’s very important that you take care of your body. Grief takes a strong emotional toll, yes—but it also takes a physical one. Getting plenty of rest and eating healthy foods is a good way to take care of your body during such a stressful time. You should also be doing activities that support your mental well-being. While it may be hard at first, doing activities you enjoy and taking time to mentally rest are important. Remember that you deserve to be happy – regardless of the tragedy you went through.

  1. Seeking support

While support groups are a good idea for all types of grief, they can be especially helpful for those struggling with survivor’s guilt. Hearing about the experiences of others and realizing you’re not alone can be incredibly insightful. It can help you work past feelings of personal guilt and shame and remind you that what you’re experiencing is incredibly human and normal. If you’re interested in joining a support group, please click here.

  1. Remembering those you’ve lost

Many people find that creating some type of memorial, volunteering for a charity, or otherwise spending time remembering those who have passed away is a good way to work through their grief. It keeps the memory of the deceased alive, which is important to survivors who find comfort in staying connected to the past. It can also be a good outlet for extra energy or restlessness one may experience while grieving.

Survivor’s guilt is something that many people live with every day. You will have good days and bad days, but hopefully by identifying your grief and finding a coping technique that works for you, you can find a way to live a fulfilling and happy life after experiencing a tragedy.

The Catholic Cemeteries Association has several bereavement resources available to the community. Please click here to learn more.

Post written by Katie Karpinski

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