In this op-ed, Nyanda Sam-King, LCSW, explores survivor's guilt and how to cope with it.
Imagine surviving a very traumatic event. Society, including yourself, may expect you to celebrate, rejoice, and feel grateful for being alive. But it may not be that simple — you might feel caught in the chasm between celebrating being a survivor and a new world of pain, guilt, and a brain newly wired to perceive the future as a threat.
This is called survivor’s guilt, and it’s the painful reality for some people of color that I work with. I work with my clients on learning how to rethink the belief that their new normal does not have to be shrouded in a trauma ridden cloak.
Truthfully, we cannot escape the painful events that happen to us. For a few, it is easy to separate their present and future from the past. However, for many, it can be difficult to escape the fact that they did not deserve the ill-fated event they experienced, and that they are worthy of surviving beyond the pain and living a fruitful life. Above all, for some, it is difficult to understand the feeling of guilt that joins their post-trauma world.
Survivor’s guilt can be experienced by people who live through situations other don't, like mass casualties, crashes, and other tragedies. They may feel they are at fault for the event or for others’ deaths, or that they shouldn’t have survived the incident. But survivor’s guilt can also include transcending any traumatic experience, like moving away from a site of trauma or achieving things others in your family never could.
In my work, I have found that Black, Indigenous, and people of color may be more likely to experience certain types of survivor’s guilt compared to their counterparts, perhaps because they’re more likely to experience certain events that may trigger it. These events may include growing up in impoverished communities with low life expectancy, fleeing social unrest or war, experiencing medical trauma or disease, outliving a child, and more.
Although the experiences listed can be immensely painful, there is light at the end of the tunnel. In order to move toward more peace and healing, we must first reflect and recognize that what you are experiencing is common. To help you get to the root, ask what, how, and why you are feeling what you are feeling. For example:
What: I feel guilt.
When: I started feeling this way since I moved out of the projects.
How: I am the first in my family to graduate from college and own a home.
Why: I feel like I do not deserve this achievement and I am leaving others behind
Once you understand the root, you can then recognize how you have conditioned yourself to believe that your survival is predicated on those around you being okay. Although we want those that we care for deeply to be okay, we have no control over the outcome of that. Though that may seem scary, understanding this can allow you to relinquish control, and help you realize you can care for others while also not controlling what happens to them simultaneously. This understanding allows us to release the guilt we feel from surviving.