Grief and guilt are not the same thing

In response to a natural disaster or tragedy, sometimes a news reporter (usually desperate for something to say) will ask a survivor if they feel “survivor’s guilt.” Following the bridge collapse in Minneapolis last year, a person who made it over the bridge at the last minute looked as if he had no idea what the reporter was talking about. Recalling many conversations I had after 9/11, Katrina and other tragedies, my experience tells me that some people experience this feeling while others do not.

Apparently, people who survive disasters are ‘supposed’ to feel guilty about the unfortunate ones who didn’t make it. If that feeling could talk, it would say, ‘I lived—but I’m wracked with guilt because others died.’

This could also apply to the death of someone from more natural causes. A spouse, for example, might feel this way, especially when a partner dies prematurely. Even when one feels ready to move ahead with life, it’s conceivable that some form of survivor’s guilt could get in the way.

Survivor’s guilt is illogical and based on a fallacy. It stems from the “zero-sum” myth that wrongly asserts that ‘my gain is, by definition, your loss’ (or vice-versa). Another example of the ‘zero-sum’ myth is the popular idea that a rich person’s wealth can somehow be blamed for poverty or the suffering of others. Though the ‘politically correct’ love to spout these ideas, they are wrong nonetheless. ‘Zero sum’ is a fallacy because it evades the existence of cause and effect. In a disaster, the causes of the deaths are whatever they happen to be: faulty construction, terrorism, weather, etc. The sparing of a survivor’s life does not contribute to the death of another. They are totally unrelated. If you survive something horrible and a loved one does not, there certainly is justification for profound remorse and grief. It might take the form of guilt, but even in these cases the guilt is still in error. Grief and guilt are not the same thing.

Many mental health professionals consider survivor’s guilt to be a form of post-traumatic stress, a psychiatric clinical disorder. But whatever the latest label may be, the assumptions underlying survivor’s guilt comprise a huge error in reasoning. The death of somebody else in a disaster is certainly a tragedy, but your survival in no way contributed to that death. It makes perfect sense intellectually, but the challenge here is emotional, not intellectual.

Mental health professional Kathleen Nader, D.S.W., makes an interesting point about guilt and death: ‘Guilt presupposes the presence of choice and the power to exercise it. Survivor guilt may sometimes be an unconscious attempt to counteract or undo helplessness. The idea that one somehow could have prevented what happened may be more desirable than the frightening notion that events were completely random and senseless.’

She makes an insightful point. As irrational as unearned guilt may be, some people would rather feel it than face the alternative. It’s hard to accept that no matter how much power and control we exercise over our lives, there are still things we simply cannot manipulate; death being the most obvious. Whenever someone dies—even someone we didn’t know—our own mortality is thrown in our faces. Some will react with a sense of objectivity or even serenity that yes, life is finite, and everyone’s time comes sooner or later (sometimes sooner, and sometimes tragically). Others can’t tolerate this reality as easily as others. Consequently, their minds create ways to distract them and help them cope. The unearned emotion of survivor’s guilt seems to be one of those ways.

According to psychologist and author Donna Marzo, Psy.D., research suggests that prolonged grief sometimes serves a purpose, in the interest of sanity. One of the functions of grief is to give the tragedy a sense of meaning and purpose. It’s a kind of loyalty to the ones who are gone. This makes a lot of sense. Loss of a loved one is horrendous to deal with under any circumstance. But at least if there is some meaning or purpose to it all, one can go on. When there’s no way to make sense of it, then survivor’s guilt may take hold. ‘She died for nothing. It was a senseless accident. How can I go on while knowing this? Why her and not me?’

So how do you change this faulty thinking? Grieving is a process to be endured over time, no matter how much it’s talked out with others (which it should be). Probably the best way to come to terms with guilt is to think about what the loved one would want for you. Would he or she want you to be happy? The answer seems obvious, but as with many emotional things, it can only be arrived at gradually. Dr. Marzo’s research supports the role of talking it out with others, challenging irrational thoughts about guilt, and helping in the aftermath. In the case of the death of a loved one, one might get involved in finding a cure, fighting crime or whatever was the nature of his or her death.

When it comes to survivor’s guilt, the overriding question seems to be: ‘Why did I live when another died?’ There’s no answer to that question. It’s just the way it is. Trying to cope, grieve, and move on is all you can ask of yourself. Yes, it’s a tall order, but dwelling on unanswerable questions isn’t the solution. The solution is to apply that energy to moving on—taking small steps today, tomorrow and the next day.