In the wake of a second suicide by a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland Florida, it’s essential to open the discussion about survivor guilt. Survivor guilt refers to the guilt that survivors feel after a traumatic event for simply being alive. On some level, survivors believe that they have done something “wrong” by making it through. While the survivor may feel a sense of relief for living through trauma, at the same time they may feel shame and guilt for surviving while others did not. With the increase in school shootings and other massacres, survivor guilt is becoming more prominent as well. The purpose of this blog is to address how you can help anyone you know going through this, and when they may need to seek out help!
Let me start by saying: Survivor guilt is a NORMAL occurrence. Survivor guilt peaks just after the traumatic event. Usual symptoms include guilt about surviving when others did not, guilt about what the survivor “could have done,” or guilt because of something the survivor did. Some people have greater reactions to trauma than others though. If you notice that your loved one is experiencing a large number of the symptoms below and that they don’t seem to be improving with time, encourage them to seek outside help!
Symptoms of Survivor Guilt
Change in mood
Being more sad, depressed, anxious, or angry than they used to be.
Becoming angry more easily than they used to.
Trouble falling asleep, trouble waking up multiples times per night, not being able to fall back to sleep, or waking up much earlier than needed
Lack of motivation
We are looking for a change in behavior, so if they have always been unmotivated then that is not a cause for concern. It is when survivors used to be very career focused and now find themselves not able to get up and go to work, or when survivors used to love going out with their friends and they now can’t find the motivation to get dressed and out of the house that we can see something is going on.
Feeling like things will never get better, or that there is no hope. This can also look like helplessness, such as feeling like they are unable to handle the things that come their way.
Feeling numb and/or disconnected
Feeling nothing, or like they are all alone in the world.
Feeling like they are right back in the trauma event. Survivors can usually describe the smells, colors, details, etc. as if they are standing back in that place.
Feeling like they want to die, or that that wish that they were dead.
Physical symptoms such as headaches, heart palpitations, or stomachaches.
Feeling happy one minute, and then very down the next, and then angry a little while later.
An increased startle response
Being “jumpy” or easily startled.
Increased anger, anxiety, or agitation
Feeling worried all the time, or getting angry more often then they used to.
Bad dreams about the trauma.
Feeling “on edge” or like something terrible will happen at any moment.
Not wanting to be around people
Spending a significant amount more time alone or at home than they used to.
Guilt such as, “Why did I survive, and he didn’t? I don’t deserve to be here.”
Some people have these thoughts and are easily able to say to themselves, “I know that that thought isn’t right” which is great. Other people get stuck in this place of negative thinking and guilt.
Surviving trauma is a big deal. Even when survivors state that they are “fine” they often need more support than they are able to say. Whether your loved one seeks outside help or not, you can help to support survivors in your life by:
Acknowledging what they have been through
Supporting survivors means acknowledging and validating that they have been through something really difficult. Sometimes survivors’ minds play tricks on them and they believe that what they went through was “not a big deal” or that “no one would want to hear about it,” but that’s simply not true. Every trauma is a big deal in its own way, and every trauma impacts survivors in a unique way. Just telling a survivor that you know that they are going through a difficult time right now and that you want to support them in whatever way you can is a great first step!
Allowing time to mourn
Even the most well-intentioned support systems sometimes get it wrong. A non-helpful thing to say to a survivor is, “you should be over this by now,” “this wasn’t a big deal,” “are you getting worse?” or any other comment or question that insinuates that the survivor “SHOULD” be dealing with the loss in a different way. Mourning is different for each individual, and each trauma survivor should be allowed to mourn their loss for as long as it takes. This does not mean that you can’t express your concern or encourage a loved one to seek outside help, it just means that it should come from a place of concern, and not include any judgments about how the survivor is currently mourning.
Being open to hearing about their experiences
Many people shy away from asking survivors what they have been through or believe that survivors should try not to talk about the trauma, and should try to forget about it. This is actually a myth. In fact, having people that survivors feel that they can talk about their trauma with, tends to make survivors feel less alone and more connected to others. It is helpful in finding ways to process for themselves what has happened. If survivors are not ready to discuss what has happened to them, that is their right, and the subject should not be pushed any further. Don’t shy away from letting them know that you are a safe person to talk to, should the survivor wish to discuss it.
Treating them the way that you always did
Sometimes when we want to protect our loved ones, we treat them with “kid gloves” after something happens. This can send the message to survivors, though, that there is something “wrong with them” or that they are “helpless” or need to be “taken care of.” It can create distance and leave survivors feeling more alone. Instead, try supporting them by opening dialogues with them, while still treating them like you always have!
Being available to spend more time together
I do understand that time is not something that everyone has, but IF you are available or can make yourself more available during this time to spend with the survivor in your life, social support is a big help in the healing process. Sometimes survivors may not know what they need from you or may have a hard time asking. Offering concrete things like, “Do you want me to pick up a pizza and come over and hang out tonight?” is better than vague offers like, “We should spend some time together.”
Reminding the survivor to treat themselves with the same kindness they would show their best friend: There are a lot of negative thoughts that come along with surviving trauma. One way that you can help survivors challenge their negative thinking is to remind them to talk to themselves or treat themselves like they would their best friend. Many of my clients would NEVER consider treating another person in the way that they treat themselves, and it is my job to challenge those cognitive distortions and help them see things from another perspective. You can help your loved one do the same!
Reminding them of the things that they have always used to cope and encouraging those things now
Survivors may never have been through anything on the same level of this trauma before, but they HAVE dealt with SOMETHING in the past. Maybe they have had a previous bout of sadness. Possibly, they had a time in their lives where they felt more worried than usual. You can ask questions about what worked for them in the past, and encourage them to use those tools now. They don’t have to be specific trauma coping skills. They can be anything from going to the beach, to calling a friend, to watching a movie. Simply remind them what worked for them before, because it may just help them in this difficult time.
Suggesting professional help
Although some survivors guilt and changes are normal after trauma, some survivors experience many symptoms that are negatively impacting many different areas of their lives. Others find themselves affected for an extended period of time and just can’t seem to get past the event. If you find that you are really worried about someone you know, gently telling him or her that you are concerned, and suggesting that they talk to someone is one of the best things you can do for them. Trauma therapy can help provide skills for your loved one to begin feeling better now. It also enables them to processes the trauma so that they can move forward with their life!