Addressing Survivor Guilt

How do you deal with the uncomfortable emotion that may arise after someone else dies of the same disease you survived? A good start is referring to the feeling by a more healing name than “survivor guilt.” I recently suggested grief-gratitude (which is better, but not perfect). 

Even with the ideal name, you still have to figure out what to do with the feeling. Recognizing triggers for the feeling helps, although sometimes you may still be taken by surprise. 

If the feeling simply washes over you and is gone, not paying it any more attention may be the best path for you. If the feeling disturbs you, it's helpful to find ways to relieve the feeling. 

If the dominant feeling is sadness, a healing response may be to find a safe place to express your grief. Somehow, feeling the pain of grief helps heal the emotional wound of loss.

If the feeling is not sadness but other discomforting emotions such as guilt, it may help to try…

  1. Distracting yourself.
  2. Designing a ritual in keeping with your belief system that helps you get back on-track, whether it’s snapping your fingers, saying a prayer, winking at the sky or putting a quarter in a donation box. 
  3. Developing a repertoire of healing aphorisms—pithy statements of truth, such as...
    • I have no reason to feel guilty; I did nothing wrong.
    • I hurt because I care; my pain reflects compassion.
    • I honor his/her memory by embracing my life with gusto.

If the feeling occurs often and/or disrupts your day (or your sleep), report it to your physicians the same way you would report a cough. Or, seek the professional advice of a counselor experienced in survivorship.  

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