We do patients a disservice by using the term survivor guilt. It focuses on guilt and, more disturbingly, may reinforce any tendency toward self-blame and shame. [Survivor guilt is the current term for the feeling survivors may experience after someone else dies of cancer.]
The idea crossed my mind to take a page from my work on hope and call the feeling “survivor false guilt.” Analogous to false hope, false guilt can be defined as a real feeling linked to a misguided belief—the belief you’ve done something wrong when, in fact, you haven’t. Tacking on “false” may be all patients need to dismiss the unpleasant feeling and move on.
Or not. When I tried it on for size, “survivor false guilt” didn‘t work. The clumsy term missed the layers and layers of sadness. Many survivors feel sad for the person who died and sadness for that family, which may trigger flashbacks of their own anticipatory grief over the same losses they once feared for themselves and their own family. Empathic sadness for anyone suffering from cancer seems to be a common thread that may cause a survivor to bawl at survivorship celebrations or to walk around in a daze after the cancer-death of someone known only by a screen name on a blog.
Mixed with patients' sadness may be a humbling existential angst of “Why me? Why did I survive?” That mystery tends to feel bigger and more tangible after cancer. Primal issues of unworthiness, vulnerability, and powerlessness may surface. With the unfairness and seeming randomness of life center stage, a sprinkling of fear of recurrence may add zing to the emotional soup.
Next: If not “survivor guilt,” what can we call this complex emotion?