Survivor’s guilt. On the surface, it seems easy enough to understand. By definition survivors’ guilt refers to feelings of guilt for surviving something when others did not. Most often, this type of guilt occurs after a large-scale tragedy such as a natural disaster or school shooting but it can manifest after any type of loss.
Survivor’s guilt was once its own diagnosis in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) but has since been removed and is now a symptom of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). As we come to learn more about this part of grief, it is clear that it is extremely complex and varies drastically from one person to another specifically with regard to intensity and duration.
Signs of Survivor’s Guilt
A person experiencing survivor’s guilt may have the following symptoms in some capacity:
- Irrational and potentially obsessive thoughts about the incident and his/her survival
- Difficulty sleeping
- Appetite changes
- A sense of apathy and
Regardless of how it presents, these complicated feelings are normal and it is important for individuals experiencing survivor’s guilt to process them without judgment. They may also need guidance in deciphering between the rational and irrational aspects of the guilt that may be causing them distress. It is most often not logical to feel responsible for someone’s death, however, feelings of guilt are not always in our control.
What to do about Survivor’s Guilt
Working through survivor’s guilt is an important part of grief counseling and should not be dismissed. If you or someone you know may be struggling with survivor’s guilt, please read below for some tips on how to cope more effectively.
- Acknowledge and name what you are experiencing
- Repressing these normal and confusing emotions is not helpful for your mental and physical health
- Explore who or what is actually responsible for the death/deaths
- Tease apart the illogical part of the guilt and remind yourself who, if anyone, is to blame
- Give yourself time to grieve and experience the difficult emotions that accompany loss
- Guilt may be a distraction from the more intense feelings of sadness/anger/loneliness that you have to face when grieving
- Think about how your loved ones feel about your survival
- Spend time with your loved ones and consider how devastated they would be if you did not survive
- Use the experience to embrace life
- Focus on gratitude and living a meaningful life with positive intentions
- Identify close/safe people to talk with
- Share your feelings about the loss and the guilt
- Be patient with yourself as you adjust to the new normal
- You are unique and therefore the way you grieve is unique; have realistic expectations of yourself
- Identify ways to self-soothe
- Deep breathing
- Going to the beach
- Listening to music
- Read books pertaining to grief/loss that resonate with you. Here are a couple of popular ones.
- Seek professional help if you are experiencing signs of mental illness and/or if you feel you need additional support during your grieving process
If you or someone you know may be experiencing thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (*Press 1 for Veterans).
Dr. Tali Berliner is a psychologist and is an expert in cognitive-behavioral therapy. Dr. Tali owns her own practice and is a tenant at The Psychology Group Fort Lauderdale. Call 954-488-2933 x 6 or email today if this post resonated with you to discuss how her services can help you.
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