Understanding Survivor Guilt, and How to Survive it.

by Donna Gibbs

The term “survivor guilt” has saturated the headlines this week following multiple suicides linked with previous school shootings. Our hearts sink when we hear of another suicide… and another suicide… and another suicide. We know that each life has a story, and we grieve for loved-ones who have been left behind. Those loved ones are now survivors in yet another club they never asked to join.

But what does survivor guilt even mean? And what does it have to do with this recent series of suicides?

The term “survivor guilt” was first introduced in the 1960’s in observation of survivors of the holocaust. Relatively few survivors were left behind, but those that remained shared a common thread. They were traumatized by the fact that they WERE left behind. Yes, they experienced symptoms commonly associated with PTSD, but they also experienced a crushing sense of unworthiness for their survival, and sometimes a sense of responsibility that they were to blame for the fact that they survived and others did not.

Survivor guilt can create intense unworthiness and relentless false guilt that leads to the kind of hopelessness associated with suicide. That means if we want to work toward suicide prevention, we must commit to effectively ministering to the genuine trauma of those who have survived unthinkable tragedy. You see, no one sets out to commit suicide with selfish intent. Someone who is suicidal doesn’t desire to hurt their family and loved ones, but they feel trapped by their thoughts and memories, and ending their lives seems the most rational escape. When a survivor of tragedy commits suicide, it may leave other survivors who are left behind feeling an even greater degree of survivor guilt, thereby increasing the likelihood of a pattern of suicides, otherwise known as suicide contagion.

The deaths that have been in the news this week were linked to survivor guilt in connection with school shootings. It is important to understand that survivor guilt is a normal reaction; it is the prompting critical incident that is abnormal. In the case of a school shooting, the survivor experiencing guilt can be a student who didn’t witness the scene, but was on campus and feels badly that they were “at the right place at the right time”. It could be a student who missed school that day, and feels that their protection from the entire scene was unfair. It could be a student who was in the same classroom, but somehow escaped the shooter. It could be a teacher that couldn’t get to the scene fast enough. It could be a parent who wasn’t even at the school, but who would always choose their child’s life over their own. It could even be someone who had encountered the murderer in some other recent context, having nothing to do with the shooting. In each of these situations, the survivor encountering guilt feels unworthy of their escape, feels they may have even done something wrong that led to their survival, and feels unable to sooth the guilt that haunts them.

But survivor guilt can also encompass a much broader range. A soldier may experience survivor guilt when they return home to family, and their buddy returns home in a body-bag. A first responder can experience survivor guilt following their response to the scene of a fatal accident. A patient with a terminal illness can experience survivor guilt when they go into remission, knowing that others with their same previous condition will not survive. A homeowner in tornado alley can experience survivor guilt when their home is the only one left standing on the street. In its mildest form and context, a degree of survivor guilt can even be experienced by a child who makes the team, when his friends are all left behind.  

Our first exposure to survivor guilt is found at the crucifixion of Christ. Can you imagine what the disciples felt upon leaving the cross? Their leader unjustly murdered. And they are able to walk away. Peter, undoubtedly reminded of his triple denial of Christ, hid in fear with the other disciples. They were likely anxious and depressed, haunted by feelings of unworthiness. The disciples likely experienced survivor guilt.

Gratefully, Jesus returned to them quickly, met them in their confusion and despair, and freed them from their guilt. You see, their guilt was never from Jesus. And if you are experiencing survivor guilt today, I hope you can be refreshed by remembrance of Jesus exposing his nail-scarred hands and His extravagant love to His disciples. You too can be refreshed by His sacrifice, and His comfort. His nail-scarred hands are still reaching out. His love for you is still outrageous. He desires that you be free of guilt, and free to rejoice in his salvation. Free also to rejoice in the protection you have experienced.

If you have survivor guilt following a tragedy, you are experiencing a normal response. The intense guilt likely squelches your freedom to rejoice in your survival. You also likely experience flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, anger or irritability, sadness and crying spells, and/or a desire to isolate. It takes some time to heal, but your healing will be more complete (and without additional, unnecessary suffering) if facilitated by a professional who is trained to help. A step towards healing starts with a simple phone call, and may be the most courageous step you have ever taken.

Donna Gibbs

Donna Gibbs, co-owner of Summit Wellness Centers, PLLC, is author of the recent releases, Silencing Insecurity and Becoming Resilient. Donna has authored numerous other books, her blogs are frequently shared in various media outlets, and she is commonly featured on radio broadcasts across America, and occasionally internationally as well. Donna has been providing individuals and families the hope and help they need for more than twenty years as a national certified counselor, board-certified professional Christian counselor, and licensed professional counselor supervisor. A member of the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC), she is a leading professional provider for Focus on the Family, Christian Care Network, r3Continuum, FINDINGbalance, and Samaritan’s Purse. 

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