Survivor's Guilt

Survivors Guilt


Survivor's Guilt: Real Consequences to Surviving a Traumatic Event | By Sally Peterson, LCSW

A mass shooting takes multiple lives.  A sinking tour boat kills 17.  A flash flood, raging wildfire, extreme heat swallow the lives of the innocent.  Such travesties are flooding the headlines. 

These losses are real. They are devastating. Our hearts go out to the families and loved ones of the lost. We, as mere recipients of the news, try to make sense of the randomness. 

But what about the person who was in that boat and made it out alive?  What about the one who dodged the array of flying bullets while those around her took their last breath?  

Is Survivor Guilt Real?

Oftentimes those who survive find themselves asking, “Why me?”  “Why did I survive while my father, my brother died?”  Feeling guilt over surviving a travesty that took others’ lives is real; so much so that there is a term for it:  survivor guilt. 

Survivor guilt is powerful and can drastically impact a person’s mood, the way he looks at and functions in the world, and the way she looks at herself.   While survivor guilt is not a clinical diagnosis, its impact on a person can be. Some may experience PTSD, depression, and/or complicated grief. Turning to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, or another addiction may follow as a way to try to cope with one’s overwhelmingly intolerable emotions. 

What Do I Do With This Guilt?

If you have survived a tragedy that’s taken another’s life, it’s crucial that you understand that IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT and YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE.  Allow yourself to sit in the deep sadness and reality of losing a loved one, an acquaintance, another human being. It’s only by moving through these intense emotions that you can come out the other side. Journal, run, punch into a pillow to release those strong emotions. Be honest, and yes, vulnerable, with a trusted friend.  Allow yourself to receive the kindness and love offered by another because you are worthy and deserving.

How Do I Know If I Need Professional Help?

If you find yourself stuck, hopeless, depressed, sleepless, hypervigilent, avoidant, isolated, moody or anxious; if relationships become strained or neglected; if it takes every ounce in you to go to work or school; if you find yourself just unable to cope with daily life; reach out to a professional for help. You have experienced real, legitimate trauma.  If you have experienced other unresolved traumas in your life (which many of us have) this most recent event can add yet another layer of complexity to the healing process.  Oftentimes trauma requires the assistance of someone who is specially trained to walk you through it and successfully to the other side. Don't suffer in silence.  In courage and strength reach out.  Help is available. 

To begin or continue your healing, contact Sally at  or 619-333-0369