Survivor’s Guilt

Mental Health

Q: I have a family member who died of COVID-19 but I am still here. I feel grief, sadness, and overwhelm. I also feel guilty. What is this and what do I do?

A: A lot of people are going through this right now. You aren’t alone. What you are experiencing is probably something called survivor’s guilt (sometimes called survivor’s syndrome), which people can experience after surviving natural disasters, war, or illnesses like cancer. Survivor’s guilt isn’t a permanent thing and isn’t a diagnosis. There are things we can do to help ourselves and others with this.

⬇️ Read on for a quick explanation of what it is and what to do.

Survivor’s guilt is a combination of feelings that are related to the core question of why one person is alive when others are not. Survivor’s guilt is a symptom or group of symptoms, not a diagnosis. It can happen with other diagnoses like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or prolonged grief.

😔 Typical symptoms of survivor’s guilt include: guilt, conflicted feelings, thinking about the issue or the event over and over again, having flashbacks, having physical symptoms, having a change in mood, problems with sleep, or decreased interest in social interactions. It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference between it and something else. But, a key feature is that you focus on how you feel in relation to the event (for example, losing a friend to cancer when you survived cancer) as well as how responsible you feel for what happened. The tricky thing is that even if you know that you shouldn’t feel guilty you still feel guilty.

❔ What can you do if you feel you are struggling with survivor’s guilt?

🛣️ Just like there is not one way to work through grief, there is not one way to work through survivor’s guilt. 🚏 The experience of each person will be a little bit different and may not follow exactly the same path. But, there are some strategies that are well researched and can help.

1. Help others. Doing things for others can help you feel connected, help bring you self-worth, and help you feel positive emotions. It can also help you feel gratitude for your ability to be here and help others. Use your professional and personal gifts to find the best way to help. This may be writing, cooking, or even helping an organization with finances.

2. Share your experience. Try to share your story with others who are able to listen (like a professional) and/or others who have had a similar experience. Support groups, peer support, individual grief coaching, therapy, and/or talking to family or friends who will not judge you can all be helpful activities.

3. Stay social. Stay connected to others because withdrawal and disconnection can increase feelings of guilt, sadness, and isolation from people who will understand. By increasing your ability to see yourself as a person who is part of a community, it also helps you remember that others around you also are part of the human experience, one that is full of good things as well as more difficult feelings of suffering and grief.

4. Express what you are feeling. This can mean writing it down, shouting it out, or talking to people. Know that it is OK to feel what you feel. You have had a difficult experience and not only do you have a loss, but you also have the struggle of understanding what to do now and how to make meaning of this experience. Some strategies to help include: visualization of how you might have interacted with the person you lost and changing the story around it, having compassion for yourself and understanding that you are human too, and thinking about the lesson you learned or actions you wish to take based on your experience. These strategies are often best done with a counselor, therapist or other mental health professional.

5. Focus on the things you CAN control. We often forget that the little things matter and that there ARE things we can control, even when we are not feeling well. Work on keeping a good sleep and wake schedule, eat nutritious foods, get outside, stay active or exercise, keep a daily schedule, keep track of daily successes, and build in relaxation strategies every day.

🫶 If you try many of these things and still feel down, guilty, or fearful, know that it is normal to feel this way. But, if you are struggling for more than 6 months after your loved one passed away, it is important to seek help.

The bottom line: Survivor’s guilt is something that many people experience, especially in the context of illness and disasters. Coping with survivor’s guilt is possible and can help you make meaning of the event and heal. 🌈 There are strategies to help and it can also be useful to seek professional support.

Stay safe. Stay well.
Those Nerdy Girls

Please note: If you need additional resources, Mental Health America (MHA) offers a great way to search for resources. And if you are in need of immediate assistance, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 OR 1-800-273-8255 (Español: 1-888-628-9454; Hearing Support: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Additional links:

Poynter Report Survivor’s guilt

NYT 2021 Column on Survivor’s guilt

In-depth conversation on Survivor’s guilt from the American Counseling Association

Coping with Guilt from Cancer.net

Easy to understand explanation of survivor’s guilt

Link to Original FB Post