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.  

Self Care When National Headlines Trigger Old Trauma

Self Care When National Headlines Trigger Old Trauma

What can you do if painful memories have come to the surface as a result of the sexual assault Kavanaugh hearings, or any other “me-too” news that rings true to home. First and foremost, BE KIND TO YOURSELF! 

Sibling Rivalry or Sibling Bullying?  When Does it Cross the Line and What Can Be Done?

Sibling Rivalry or Sibling Bullying?  When Does it Cross the Line and What Can Be Done?

So much attention, rightfully so, has been paid to bullying in the schools. Yet family researchers have recently found that bullying inside the home can actually cause as much or even more damage to children’s mental well being—even into adulthood. 

Family Estrangement: Why Children Cut Off Their Parents and Tips for Healing

 Family Estrangement: Why Children Cut Off Their Parents and Tips for Healing

Some splits between parent and child come from something sudden or dramatic, but most broken ties develop gradually and stem from misunderstandings and less extreme, albeit hurtful, interactions. Let’s talk about what hope there might be if you are estranged from your parent or child. Here's what I recommend…

Establishing Boundaries and Being True to Yourself in Your Close Relationships

 Establishing Boundaries and Being True to Yourself in Your Close Relationships

We are people who need people. We simply cannot reach our true potential without being loved. The paradox is that to attract the right kind of person into our lives, one with whom our love can grow and grow, we must first have a strong connection with our self and the light we possess inside. Only when we are emotionally independent, when we let go of the desperation and intense “need” for someone else to validate or want us, to praise or make us a priority, do we build the proper platform on which to actually draw the love we so desire.

How to Support Your Mate with Depression, Anxiety and Disorders

How to Support Your Mate with Depression, Anxiety and Disorders

When I work with couples in my counseling practice, time and time again, I see one or both struggle with some kind of anxiety, depression or other mental health disorder. While not a deal breaker by any means, unresolved mental health problems can lie at the heart of couples’ greatest friction and disconnection.

Hope for Healing the Wound of an Absent Father or Divorce

Why has Kelly Clarkson’s song, Piece by Piece, and her emotional appearance on American Idol, resonated with so many?  To start with, people love real people! Take a song delving into the void of a daddyless daughter who witnessed multiple divorces—and couple that with Kelly breaking down while singing—and you have the hearts of a whole nation open wide. 

Click above to watch the fox2 video 

Click above to watch the fox2 video 

In both or her songs, Piece By Piece and Because Of You, Kelly touches upon a profound challenge many faces: growing up with an absent father and in a home of divorce.  According to the US Department of Census, 43% of US children live without their father physically present. And this does not include the emotionally absent father, which has been shown to have an identical impact.  In addition, 50% of American children will witness the breakup of a parent’s marriage. Close to half of those will also see the breakup of a parent’s second marriage.

While the statistics reflect a significantly greater prevalence of absent fathers, it’s important to note that 8% of households have children being raised with a physically absent mother (emotional absence being harder to measure). The purpose of this article is not to point the finger at men (or divorced parents). Actually, the message here is not to judge anyone. That never helps. Nonetheless, the truth is, when either of our parents are absent, or when they divorce, this leaves a profound lack. The extensive and disturbing statistics reveal unfortunate consequences due to this lack.  That being said, I am not here to depress but rather inspire hope—because what we do with our lack makes all the difference for our future happiness and relationship success. 

Here are some recommendations to take care of the wounds from parental absence and/or divorce:

Only when we grasp the incredible capacity we have for growing and transforming, healing and forgiving, can we truly make the most of our lives. We create our reality, regardless of what happens to us on the outside.  It’s a radical level of power and responsibility over one’s life, but it works. No matter the trauma we experience, we possess an unshakeable wholeness within. 

We can’t go it alone. Not if we really want to reach our true potential. Assistance from a healing professional is not a sign of weakness.  Quite the opposite, letting someone in for the sake of empowering our highest self speaks volumes about our desire, our willingness to take responsibility for our lives and for our courage to be vulnerable.

When we understand the emotional impact, and behavioral tendencies, from having an absent parent or living in a divorced home, we can start to choose proactively how to respond to the pain we experience and respond with greater self-love, control, and wisdom.  Otherwise, we live reactively, shooting in the dark by behaving unconsciously, not really knowing what hole we are trying to fill. 

For example, most children of an absent parent and/or divorce struggle with two common issues:  Fear of abandonment, and feeling unworthy of love. These deep wounds tend to bleed into relationships in four harmful ways: 

  •     People Pleasing - settling for less out of fear of rejection
  •     Needy for love - a desperate latching on to any attention to cover a fear of being alone
  •     Fixing our partner - maybe we could get the love we need if we can fix his/her problems
  •     Emotionally unavailable - never letting people in, hard to commit, afraid to be vulnerable

By identifying our own behavioral traits, this is a beginning of transforming them.  We cannot change what we cannot see.  We also minimize the risk of repeating the cycle.

We need to have a good relationship with ourselves to be whole. As hard and counterintuitive as it may be, we must restrict the urge to have a romantic partner fill our lack. It’s a paradox. The more we work on being good with us, the greater are our chances of attracting what we are really looking for.  We are people who need people.  But it’s about timing and priority. We must put our relationship with our true self first.  Only then are we truly prepared to attract a soulmate, someone with whom we experience genuine love and belonging—that lasts!   

Be selective with who you date, let in and especially marry.  Realize your worth and guard your inner Light. Stay away from those who show signs of caring only for the self alone, not a family player. Be cautious about taking morsels of attention to assuage your fear of being alone.  Break the chain and select someone who appears to be capable and have balance, who is open to growing and becoming a better person. You are worth it. 

Blame is a heavy first stone on our backs, upon which those larger stones of anger, fear guilt, and shame build. Blaming our parents, and especially blaming ourselves, keeps us stuck and limits our capacity to enjoy the blessings we are meant to receive.  We often cannot see the big picture in life, it can be hard to make sense of our losses and hardships. But those who trust the process of life, and learn to embrace the challenges as opportunities to grow stronger, wiser and more capable of love, tend to rise higher than those who can’t let go and continue to blame. It’s not easy to forgive and be compassionate with ourselves. Yet when we focus on the blessings that we have gained through the pain, and the Light revealed from the darkness, we stop wishing for things to be different and appreciate who we are and all that we are given.  

What Will Be Our Legacy: A Note to Parents
Remember the feeling when the twin towers came down? Or have you ever heard some scary news, or come close to losing, or actually lost, someone to an illness. Perhaps you have feared you would lose a marriage or time with your children?  These times can hit us with a wave of love and perspective, how clearly we see what really matters. Times of crisis can also feel like we've been hit with a frying pan - a wake up call if you will.  Our human nature can easily keep us stuck in physicality, in the worries and day to day life. Many adults fail to realize how in the bigger picture, it's the people and our relationships that matter the most. When it comes to being a parent, especially for fathers, many simply fail to grasp how important their role is and the profound difference they make in their children's lives. On so many levels.

I often hear wisdom from those late in their years wishing they would have been more present with their children when they were younger.  Everyone is doing their best; we all have wounds to heal and obstacles from complex and often painful family dynamics. Most absent fathers (or mothers) were raised in a home with an absent father themselves, or been in some kind of dysfunctional or broken home. But it's never too late to break the cycle. When we awaken the desire, we are wired to grow and do better - especially with help. So rather than waiting for a crisis to teach us what really matters, or when it's late in the game, let’s ask ourselves: “How present am I with my children?” “Am I who I really want to be for my kids.” “Am I taking care of myself, and growing, so I can be the best parent I can be?” “What kind of legacy do I want to leave?”

Words Can Hit as Hard as a Fist

Words Can Hit as Hard as a Fist

Understanding more about emotional abuse —  what it really is, how the damage shows up, and especially how to overcome - is vital for healing oneself and making sure we create the healthiest environments for ourselves, our children and our relationships.