“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.” Earl Grollman

Grief is a complex and deeply personal experience that manifests in various ways. When we lose someone close to us, the emotional journey can be overwhelming, filled with sorrow, emptiness, and longing. Amidst this process, an additional burden may emerge: survival guilt. 

Survival guilt refers to experiencing culpability, not having done enough, confusion, and self-blame that arise when we question why we have survived while others have not. 

Understanding Survival Guilt

Survival guilt often arises when someone has experienced the loss of a loved one in a traumatic or unexpected manner. Individuals may question why fate spared them while taking away someone dear. 

They may replay scenarios in their mind, wondering if they could have done something differently or blame themselves for surviving. This guilt can be especially prominent when others close to them, who were equally deserving of life, did not survive.

Origins of Survival Guilt

Survival guilt can stem from several sources:

  1. It may be a result of our innate sense of fairness. We tend to believe that life should operate under principles of equity. When we witness the inequity of someone’s life being cut short while ours continues, guilt takes root.
  2. Survivors may experience guilt due to their expected helplessness during the loss. It is common for individuals to think that the outcome might have been different if they had taken a different action or made different choices.
  3. Societal and cultural factors can contribute to survival guilt. Society often places expectations on individuals to make sense of and justify their survival, creating an additional layer of pressure.

The Effects of Survival Guilt on Mental Health

Survival guilt can have profound effects on an individual’s mental health. It can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and complicated grief. 

Individuals may experience a sense of alienation from their support network, feeling as though others cannot understand the complexity of their emotions. This isolation can exacerbate the guilt, causing a vicious cycle of self-blame and shame. The weight of survival guilt can hinder the grieving process, making it difficult to move forward.

Coping with Survival Guilt

  1. Acknowledge and validate emotions: It is crucial for individuals experiencing survival guilt to acknowledge and validate their emotions. Recognize that survivor’s guilt is a natural response to loss and does not invalidate your pain and grief.
  2. Self-compassion: Practice self-compassion by reminding yourself that you did not cause the loss and are not responsible for the events that unfolded. Treat yourself with kindness and understanding, just as you would comfort a friend going through a similar experience.
  3. Seek support: Engage with a support system that understands and accepts your emotions. Connecting with others who have experienced similar grief or seeking therapy can provide a safe space to express your feelings without judgment.
  4. Reflect and reframe: Allow yourself to reflect on the circumstances surrounding the loss. Understand that survival does not diminish your memory or love for the deceased person. 
  5. Engage in self-care: Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. Engaging in activities that bring you joy, practicing relaxation techniques, and prioritizing self-care can help alleviate some of the guilt and foster healing.
  6. Give back: Channel your feelings of guilt into positive action. Honour the memory of your loved one by engaging in acts of kindness, volunteering, or supporting causes that were important to them.

Survival guilt can be an overwhelming experience that complicates the grieving process. Recognizing that survival does not invalidate the pain and loss you have endured is essential. By understanding the origins of survival guilt, acknowledging your emotions, seeking support, and practicing self-compassion, you can begin to navigate the path toward healing.

Remember, the weight of survival guilt can be lightened, and with time, you can find a way to honour your loved one’s memory while embracing your own life.