Dealing with survivor’s guilt

Good Morning CT at Nine

The Newtown, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida communities are dealing with tradgedy once again after three people took their own lives. 

Survivors of mass shootings are victims too, and they often deal with survivor’s guilt.

Clinical Psychologist Ryan Loss is helping people navigate it.

Survivor’s guilt is a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived an incident in which others died.  In some cases, this includes feeling you could have done more to save another personIn some cases, this includes feeling you could have done more to save another person, in other cases it is feeling guilty that another person died saving you.

Symptoms of survivor’s guilt:

Having flashbacks.
Feeling irritable.
Having difficulty sleeping.
Feeling immobilized, numb, and/or disconnected.
Being unmotivated.
Feeling helpless.
Experiencing physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and palpitations.
Having suicidal feelings.

What can be done if you or a loved one is experiencing survivor’s guilt:

Accept what you are feeling. Guilt is a stigmatized emotion, as people can make us feel that it is wrong to feel guilty.  Keep in mind that guilt is not, on its own, a problem. It is a natural feeling that needs to be acknowledged, accepted and processed.

Know you’re not alone. Survivor guilt is much more common than people realize.  Finding a support group or other space to connect with others experiencing similar feelings can be very helpful in sharing feelings and feeling less isolated.

Remember that your relief and appreciation for your survival can co-exist with your grief for those who died. Celebrating your own survival does not in any way diminish your grief for those who did not survive.

Grieve those who died. In some cases, those who died are not people you knew personally or knew well.  This does not mean you cannot take space to mourn those who died in a way that is personal and meaningful for you.

Do something with your guilt.  Whether rational or irrational, you can use your guilt to help others.  What you do may come out of things you have learned. Whether it is educating others so they can avoid the mistakes you feel guilty about, raising awareness about causes of death (anything from heart disease to substance abuse to suicide), or simply encouraging others to talk with their family about end of life wishes, you can use many guilt experiences to help others.

Don’t get stuck on the ‘whys’.  Like a small child can’t stop asking ‘why’, when events like this happen we often fixate the ‘why’.  If there is a ‘why’, we can’t know what it is no matter how long we obsess about the question.  Difficult as it is, try to let go of asking the ‘why’ question and focus on the meaning you can create from your survival.  Whether it is big or small, seek the ways you will create something from this second chance

Embrace life.  In spite of your feelings of guilt, it is important to enjoy the life you have been given.  In the depths of guilt, this can be hard, but it can also be an extremely helpful part of digging out of that hole by feeling you are valuing the gift you were given

Talk to a therapist.  If you are still struggling with survivor guilt it may be time to get some professional help.  Look for a therapist in your area.  A therapist with experience in trauma may be an especially good fit, as they likely have experience with this type of guilt.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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