Resources

Overcoming Survivor’s Guilt

Three suicides. One week. All connected to the tragic aftermath of mass shootings. I was asked to speak about survivor’s guilt today, when the loss is unthinkable, when the trauma, unimaginable.  We all want to understand how we humans respond to such overwhelming pain and grief. How can we care for ourselves, Heaven forbid, to find meaning and embrace life again. How we can care for those around us?

Survivor’s guilt, a form of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), shows up much the same way that traditional PTSD does. That is, nightmares, flashbacks, sleep problems, irritability, numbness, meaninglessness and helplessness. Many develop suicidal ideation and impulses.  Those who fair the most poorly and ones with a history of depression, childhood trauma, low self esteem and little social support.  The trauma becomes a compounding experience and often a wake up call to deal with the root issues still wreaking havoc in one’s psyche and nervous system.  

It might sound oversimplified for anyone who has experienced devastation and tragic loss, but below are some suggestions.  

  1. Counseling and mental health care are key.  Every living thing has the energy of healing within, but we often need another human to hold the space to help us awaken that healing energy. Not just at the beginning, but long term, it’s imperative to have mental health check ups and regular support for un-peeling the layers of grief.   We lost our nephew in 2006 and it wasn’t until 2016 that his mother realized all the layers of grief she had buried, escaping into old and outmoded coping mechanisms.  Watching her embrace her recovery process 10 years later is a true testament to the resiliency we possess at the core and to the power of spiritual and personal growth.

  2. Connected to counseling is the importance of processing, rather than suppressing emotions; and identifying and transforming the cognitive patterns and belief systems that might be feeding the guilt, depression, helplessness and despair. 

  3. Don’t be surprised if your unresolved issues show up on the table. Consider this an opportunity, not an easy one, but a true chance  to excavate that which has likely weighed you down for years. 

  4. Allow yourself time to grieve.  Be patient and self loving. Everyone’s process is unique and not to be judged or compared.

  5. Self care is essential and top of the list.  This could mean spending plenty of time with those you love, being in nature, caring for your body, taking your spiritual life to the next level, and all of the above to tend to the deep emotional wounds.

  6. Lean into your routine.  This can help prevent you from falling lower than you can manage and also keeps you connected to other people and the world of life around you. 

  7. Be of service as best you can. Do your best to seek meaning and purpose.  Invest yourself in something you believe in, something that will add value. When we come from a place of sharing and kindness, we benefit far more than those on the “receiving” end.   When empty, you might not be able to give the same as when you feel full. Yet it’s important to push yourself and go against the justifications as to why you can’t or shouldn’t share. 

  8. Deepen into your spiritual path.


When speaking about survivor’s guilt, of course, we must address the guilt aspect.  Why did I survive and not them?  Maybe I could have done something more? I missed opportunities while they were alive to do more, show more, give more. These feelings are common and normal responses to grief overall, but especially strong when the loss was sudden and tragic, much less violent.  A powerful remedy for survival’s guilt is to understand that much of what you’re feeling is a coping mechanism to try and cover up the true vulnerability that is inherent in being a living human being, especially when it comes to deep loss. While I believe we can actually taking charge of our lives far more than most of us grasp, we must also embrace the humility that comes with that which is bigger than us.  The trick is to keep our hearts open while at the same time facing our vulnerability.

Guilt is different than responsibility. Guilt weighs us down, makes us want to do less, speaks lowly messages inside our heads and demotivates us. The energy of guilt comes from a negative force and places a boulder on our back which becomes the foundation for a tower of sadness, shame, anger, and blame. Even when we do good things, but from a place of guilt, we won’t feel inspired or connected to life.  Responsibility, on the other hand, while it might come with feeling the pain of our own missteps, missed opportunities or loss— the energy shifts from passive to active.  From beating oneself up, to “I can do something positive now.”  It’s an energy force on the side of empowerment drawn from the essence of our unlimited soul. When we give from wanting to take responsibility, we come from fullness which opens the gates to the creative mind and blessings flow. So check your thought patterns when you notice feeling guilt, and ask yourself: How can I turn this into something practical, proactive? How can I take responsibility for some aspect of my life, because I believe in myself?”

When it comes to supporting others, don’t be afraid to be vigilant about asking personal questions related to how they are doing.  How are you sleeping?  Do you have nightmares? What kinds of thoughts trouble you the most?  Do you feel like yourself? If you feel concerned about them, be willing to set up an appointment and go with them to a counselor or psychiatrist. Sometimes we need a hand in ours to take brave steps. Be patient, knowing that grief and trauma can feel relentless.  Do your best, then let go of the rest. 

May we all be there for one another and may our days be filled with blessings, even amidst the pain and tragedies of life.  

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