Survivor’s Guilt

My young friend Emily wrote:

I was walking on the street near my university when a man pulled up beside me in his car. He said he was an undercover cop and asked me to get in because he had a few questions. I remembered all my mother’s advice, refused and informed the police. Later that day another student from abroad was kidnapped, raped and killed by the same man. I am having great difficulty living with this. I went to court as a witness which helped to prosecute him, and as a result the victim’s parents have been kind and generous to me. Which only makes me feel worse. I feel like she died because I lived, and that it should have been me instead. I’d like you to share my story in any way that benefits others.

Oh Emily what a huge life-changing event so full of grief. Please get a therapist to help you with this. It could make an enormous difference in helping your recovery from both the trauma and the survivor’s guilt.

Survivor’s guilt has two important components that are challenging to take in. The first is that you are the one alive. And the second is that life is not fair. The fact that you are alive is something that everyone who loves and cares about you is grateful for, including me. At the heart of survivor’s guilt is your own gratitude for that, which is difficult yet vital to access. You are here. You are alive. And have a whole future life to live.

In order to see how you will be able to live, and find purpose in doing so, you will need to understand how this experience has changed you—for the better. This will be impossible to access until you’ve allowed the sadness and grief to be completely felt. Which you can’t do if you’re dwelling in the guilt, which is a way to beat yourself up. A therapist could be a big help in preventing you from getting stuck in the pain. If you’re able to listen to your heart, and are into it, you could also go into a meditative state and have “chats” with the deceased woman, pencil in hand. Writing or drawing your experience can be a first step in getting it out of you, onto a page.

The self-recrimination you are experiencing has to be acknowledged, and then not reinforced by giving it too much attention. What needs reinforcing is your obvious caring for this woman, and for all other women vulnerable to this kind of attack. When I was a student a highly disturbed man came to speak to me and I freaked out and left. He killed himself a few days later. Nothing can change how I didn’t help him, but everyone I have helped since has benefitted. You’ve told me you’d like your experience to benefit others. How you’d like to bring that about is an important question. Perhaps you’ve started by asking me to share this conversation.

I think your story highlights some educational components. Your Mum hammered in “stranger danger” lessons you drew on to save your life. Other parents—and cultures—may have stressed to their children the need to comply with authority. The perpetrator was counting on that. This is in no way whatsoever intended as blame. The only blame here goes to the criminal.

That is an important piece as all the good people around a crime like this are busy with the self-blame and the what-ifs which is harmful and self-punitive. It was not you, me, the girl, the parents —nobody was responsible for harming the woman except the man who did it. An important piece of recovery is to stop perpetuating the pain by internalizing the blame and find a way to get it out. You, Emily, not only did you not harm the woman (and followed due diligence by reporting this), you saved yourself. This is cause for great joy.

It is entirely possible, and necessary, that this joy can coexist with the sadness of this tragedy. Life is not fair. That is a big one to take in, but it is true. And a much bigger canvas to operate in than your ideas of, “it should have been me not her,” as if one death, one life, can replace another. No one knows why you, or I, are alive right now instead of all those more worthy souls who are not. But hey, we’re here. And aren’t you just the teensiest bit glad about it? Let’s make the best of the time we have, and please get whatever support you can to help with that.

Lastly, none of knows how we are going to cope or react to evil like this until it hits us. You have done damned well. But let’s acknowledge the full scope of this huge trauma. Survivors usually minimize this because “worse happened to others”. Perhaps so. But it is both her pain and yours that is contained in your nervous system and that is no small thing. I hold you in love and healing until you have a human nearby to do that properly. Though I understand your dog is doing a valiant job.


6 thoughts on “Survivor’s Guilt”

  1. Beautiful advice for a traumatic incident she experienced. I love how you heard her and gave her some other areas to focus on which are also true and more helpful to help her gently move her out of that same looping conversation that was keeping her stuck in the trauma.
    Wow! That was a long sentence! I need a writing class!

  2. And an insight into the passion you pour into your practice to help others in pain. You made the best out of a deeply troubling event in your life… an example of how to turn dark into light.

    • Thanks so much, Alison. Shivam named the “same looping conversations” we all need to get out of. You are naming the love that is bottom line in a healing relationship. I think we have just inaugurated an “advice” thread about the nature of healing. Let’s see who else wants to send in a question……

  3. “Ode to Joy” plays on Alexa this morning as I read your thoughtful and inspiring response to Emily on her Survivor Guilt question. I am struck by the capriciousness of Life; it’s joys and it’s sorrows, its ups and its downs, who lives and who dies. A few years back, I was driving at night on the 805 freeway. In my rear view mirror, I could see that all cars had stopped about fifty yards behind me. There had been a strange turning and veering of headlights behind me a split second before. The next morning, I heard on the news that a drunk driver had veered into the lane next to him and killed a mother and baby. If I had left “50 yards later” on my journey….could the victim have been me instead? hmmmm. While grieving for the loss of the young mother and child, at the same time, I experienced profound gratitude, wonder and joy that I had remained to live another day. They were gone. I was not. Nicola, I think you are helping, and I hope Emily reaches, a shared experience with me of gratitude and joy that, due to some Great Unknowable, she remains here.


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