Moving past survivor's guilt

When tragedies happen to loved ones or strangers, it's easy to wonder, "Why not me?"

The question:

"After Superstorm Sandy and now the shooting in Newtown, I'm feeling really guilty about having a nice Christmas with my family. Is this crazy? Is there anything I can do to feel better?"

 

No, you're not crazy. What you're describing sounds like classic survivor's guilt. Many people experience mild to moderate guilt after escaping or witnessing tragedies, natural disasters, combat, terrorist attacks, and epidemics. Some wonder "why not me?" and question whether they deserved to survive, or are somehow to blame.

 

Although fairly common, these thoughts feelings are not rational. They are the mind's feeble attempt to make sense of senseless situations. The term was first coined in the 1960s to describe a pervasive sense of guilt described by many Holocaust survivors. Today, survivor's guilt is attributed to the depression many soldiers experience when returning from war zones.

 

Given the heavy media coverage of both Hurricane Sandy and the Newtown massacre, many people are acutely aware of the loss of life and devastation. The Newtown tragedy is especially disconcerting because of the innocence of its young victims. Consequently, it's easy to feel touched by these tragedies even if you don't personally know a single person who was directly impacted.

 

The positive side of survivor's guilt is that it can serve as motivating force for change. Make a donation, volunteer, or join one or more campaigns to address gun control, mental health, and school safety. If you are so inclined, you can even pray.

But really, the best thing you can do this Christmas is savor the time with your family. Depriving you and your loved ones of an opportunity to experience joy doesn't help anyone - it just spreads misery. And the families affected by Sandy and Newtown would trade places in a heartbeat. So let go of your guilt and enjoy the holidays.

— Kim Schneiderman, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and former journalist with a private practice in New York City.

This column is not intended to be used as a substitute for a private consultation with a mental health professional, nor is this therapist to be held liable for any actions taken as a result of this column. If you have any concerns related to the content of this column, please make an appointment with a licensed mental health professional. E-mail Kim your questions at askkim@metro.us.

 
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