Survivor Guilt: Is It Logical to Feel a Sense of Responsibility?

A rose blooming in snow - Survivor Guilt

People who live through a traumatic situation often feel what’s called “survivor guilt.”

Unless it’s treated, this phenomenon can have a significant impact on the survivor’s life after the event.

So, is survivor guilt logical?

What is survivor guilt?

Survivor guilt occurs when someone lives through a traumatic experience, but others do not. As a result, the survivor often feels some level of responsibility for those who did not survive.

We often get examples of survivor guilt from those returning from war. Combat is a confusing situation where logic does not always apply. The same bullet can miss one soldier but hit another. Those returning home often are wracked with guilt over what happened. They wonder whether they could have done something more.

But survivor guilt is not only associated with combat. Those who survive terror events, fatal accidents and incidents such as the Grenfell fire or Hillsborough disaster can also experience survivor guilt.

The concept of subjective guilt

One way to describe survivor guilt is through the concept of subjective guilt. Subjective guilt happens when a person feels guilt and responsibility for something, even though they know that they did nothing wrong.

In contrast, rational guilt occurs when one feels guilty because of one’s actions or inaction. In such an instance, the guilt we feel is reasonable and logical. But with subjective guilt, the facts don’t lend themselves to a person feeling guilty. But the guilt remains.

Comrades in arms

Some people experience survivor guilt because they feel a sense of responsibility towards those that perished.

Taking fire-fighters as an example, they often have a powerful sense of comradery, feeling part of a watch’ family.’ They want to look out for each other to make sure they all go home. This comradery breeds a sense of loyalty and trust. They know that their comrades “have their backs.” But, if one or more of them perish, their comrades may somehow feel responsible. They may ask if there was something more they could have done.  

Members of the armed forces often feel guilt in respect of those who didn’t return from combat.

Random calamities

Another way people experience survivor guilt is due to the randomness of a situation. For example, in a terror attack or civil disaster, the event itself is illogical. Someone who survives such an experience while others did not may ask, “Why me?”

Those who are left behind to feel relief that they are alive, yet sadness that others perished. They may doubt themselves or their actions. Was there something more they could have done at the moment? Could they have saved someone else?

Is it logical to feel a sense of responsibility?

In a way, it is logical to feel a sense of responsibility. We often ask ourselves what we might have done differently in many aspects of our lives. Such reflection helps us feel in control, rather than helpless, and to learn lessons from our experiences.

Yet, the truth is that when we’re in these types of catastrophic situations, there isn’t anything else to be done. At that moment, people are just trying to stay alive. No one can explain the logic of how one person lives and the other does not.

How can I deal with survivor guilt?

One way that people deal with survivor guilt is by channelling that energy into action. For example, a soldier who returns from war can do nothing more to help their friends who died. Yet, they can volunteer to help other veterans who have disabilities or injuries because of the war.

Those who survive tragic events such as Hillsborough, or the Grenfell fire, often throw themselves into campaigning: for justice, or to improve safety for others.

Getting treatment for survivor guilt

While, on the surface, survivor guilt seems irrational, it is our way of finding control of a situation where we feel powerless. For many people, survivor guilt is crippling. It makes it very hard to function on a day-to-day level.

That is why it is important to get counselling after experiencing a violent or traumatic event. 

Working with a counsellor can help you process the emotions associated with what happened. Working through that trauma enables you to put the feelings of guilt into context, so they no longer dominate your life.

Taking the next step

Those who suffer from survivor guilt can also feel a powerful sense of shame: shame they didn’t do more; shame they survived; shame for feeling such guilt. This combination of guilt and shame can make it very hard to ask for help. Our trauma counsellors are trained to understand the difficulties associated with survivor guilt.

While it can be hard for you to take that first step of contacting someone, counselling can make a life-changing difference. If you would like to speak in confidence with a counsellor, please call us on 0151 329 3637 or email enquiries@counselling-matters.org.uk. Alternatively, you can fill out our online referral form, and we contact you. Call us today. We look forward to hearing from you.

Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay.

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