The disquieting emotion survivors may experience after learning someone died of cancer is less troublesome than fear of recurrence. Yet it unsettles enough patients to merit attention. Dissatisfied by my September 22nd effort to rename "survivor guilt," I am trying again in a new series of blog posts.
Feeling and expressing gratitude is a logical and healing response to someone else's death. You feel gratitude for your survival and for the relationships and joys—grand milestones and mundane pleasures—that make life worth living. If you loved the person who died, you feel grateful for having had that person in your life.
Yet for whatever reasons (and the possibilities are endless), survivors may experience a disquieting sense of guilt that even a concerted focus on gratitude doesn't resolve. What might you feel guilty about?
- Surviving when others didn’t.
- Suffering less than others (milder treatment and/or fewer complications).
- Boorish thoughts, such as, “Well, he did smoke.”
- Embarrassing feelings, such as relief that it wasn’t you.
- Having not done enough to help the person who died, whether with advice or support.
- Continuing to do ordinary things, such as go to the movies or make plans.
- Feeling happy about a secondary gain, such as a job opening or relief from unwanted tasks.
- Not savoring every second of life, such as by complaining about traffic or by wanting to skip some family event because you have a work deadline or simply aren’t in the mood.
Next: Healthy ways to respond to thoughts or feelings that cause survivor guilt.