When tragedy hits loved ones, it is common for individuals to feel guilty and ask questions such as “why not me” and “if only I had done something differently, this person would be alive today.” These thoughts and questions are hallmarks for “survivor syndrome.” Guilt often takes the form of what someone did (e.g., having an argument before an accident), what should have been done (e.g., would have tried harder to rescue and help someone who committed suicide), or about surviving in general (e.g., I didn’t do anything to deserve being safe; it is not fair that this person was harmed and I wasn’t).
When these questions and thoughts hit, consider asking who is truly responsible for the incident—if anyone is truly to blame. Often times, no one is responsible and the situation was random and could not have been prevented, predicted, or changed. This illustrates how individuals may overestimate and distort his/her sense of responsibility (e.g., if I had changed the tire, this person would be alive today). This guilt actually represents a false sense of control or an illusion in which there is actually protection for feelings related to powerlessness and helplessness. In other words, guilt allows people to move forward rather than being frozen and paralyzed living in a world that has random forces that cannot be controlled or predicted—which can be terrifying. The problem is that it is misplaced guilt and not accurate.
It is important to focus on the pain, sadness, and suffering, or the guilt becomes a negative coping strategy to avoid feeling heartache. Over time, the guilt will make things worse and prevent people from moving forward. Remind yourself that you are safe, you are okay, and it is natural to have intense emotions after the death of a loved one. It is OK to punch a pillow, to journal, to cry your eyes out, or to sit in a quiet room letting the emotions come.
During this painful process, it is also important to remember the other people in your life who are present to help and support you, and to acknowledge the devastation they would feel without your presence. YOU may have been given the gift of survival, so consider letting the guilt go and embracing and sharing the love you can still give to the world.
Lastly, consider the power behind guilt—serving as a motivator for change, action, and purpose. For example, maybe you go to a blood bank and donate your blood. Stand up for a cause; donate money to a relevant charity; etc. Most of all take care of yourself physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Remember that survivor guilt is misplaced guilt.