On the morning of November 19 one year in the early 1980s, I was born. A few minutes later, I effectively died.
Several years later, on November 19, I lost my only brother.
Most recently, on November 19, 2015, my last living grandparent died.
In the years between my brother’s death and my grandmother’s death, more than a few friends were taken from me. Friends I adored. Women I loved. People who had affected me profoundly.
Through these tragedies, I have been followed by a terrorizing beast: survivor guilt.
Survivor guilt is a desecrating pain that arises in response to surviving something. It is a malady affecting millions of people, and it causes most people to hide their wounds.
Survivor guilt has been externally invisible as I've traversed this life, but internally it has formed as a series of the most aching screams I’ve ever felt:
I am unworthy.
I don’t deserve to be here.
I shouldn't be alive.
It began early. I remember being in my parents' room many times as a child, holding my brother's urn. I would carefully caress this urn, filled with the ashes of the brother I barely had a chance to get to know. I don’t know what I was looking for when I held him, but I felt both connected and remorseful at the same time.
Why had it not been me instead?
I remember screaming in anguish as I became aware that my right side would never function properly, and crying myself to sleep as every anti-convulsant I took to treat my seizures threatened my life. While I felt a sense of gratitude for my ability to live independently, I recoiled in horror as I grew older and discovered that most people with my disabilities had far more difficult lives.
Why was I the miracle child?
I remember wondering why I had failed in my suicide attempts as a teenager, while some of my friends had succeeded in ending their lives.
Why couldn't I have saved them?
And I remember the shockwaves that would permeate my soul every time a friend would die or vanish.
Why the fuck wasn't it me instead?
Every one of these experiences has shaped me—in ways that have both served and harmed me.
I won't bullshit you. It hasn't been a rosy series of learning experiences. It's been a succession of losses, aches, lonely nights, and yes, learning experiences.
Yet in this sojourn of life, I have emerged with hope. I am broken, protean, sometimes weak, sometimes strong. But I'm here. And I want you to stay here with me as well.
You've probably experienced the scourge of survival guilt as well, and if you haven't yet, you surely will one day. You will survive an illness that kills most people. You will miss a flight that crashes. A loved one you forgot to call will be killed in a car accident. I don't say this to be a downer, I say this because it is the truth.
While you can never be prepared for loss or the ensuing guilt that often arises in it, you can bear witness to your pains and practice acknowledgment with those who are besieged by guilt in their own journeys.
I can’t take your guilt away. That is not my place, or anyone else's. But I can stand with you, walk with you, and offer you refuge in my solidarity.
Feeling guilt amid loss is a perfectly natural response to tragedy. This guilt is not bad or wrong. Saying it is bad or wrong is bad and wrong.
It's also imperative you understand that you might carry a strong sense of guilt for being fortunate.
In her memoir Devotion, Dani Shapiro tells a story about a man who had been the last person to escape one of the Twin Towers. He was haunted by survivor guilt, his eyes revealing, as Dani says:
The bottomless pain of his own good fortune.
I have found that this pain is indeed bottomless, and the more fortunate I seem to be, the greater the potential for that pain to block my heart. I must jealously guard my heart's tendency to isolate, such that my compassion remains available to those who need me. I need you to do the same.
How do you do this? You begin by saying no. A LOT. Some people are going to rush to your side. Others are going to abandon you. Others still are going to be not quite there, and not quite gone. They’ll offer bits of themselves, but in ways that are useless and harmful. Do not let these people dictate the terms of your grief, especially if you're experiencing guilt. Boundaries will preserve your sanity.
From there, you shield yourself against everything that has the capacity to cheapen or diminish your pain. You do this by being brutally honest with yourself, and making clear what you will and will not tolerate. You start by addressing what you'll hear most when you're in the epicenter of survivor guilt. I'm not going to take any prisoners here, so let's just be clear:
Fuck the Platitudes
The platitudes make it worse. Much, more worse.
It’s not your fault. Release the guilt. At least you're still alive. Let the feelings go...they don't change anything.
You don’t care about doing what's "practical" when you’re haunted by grief. It doesn’t matter if there was nothing you could have done. This is not a rational exercise, this is an experience of the heart.
If you're hearing an endless succession of platitudes from those around you amid your loss, forgive them and ignore the language. Make it clear that the words are unacceptable. If this doesn't work, strictly limit your interaction with these people or remove them from your life.
Reject the False Dichotomies
Survivor guilt brings out the staggering idiocy of false dichotomies in incredible ways:
You’re either grateful to be alive, or angry you’re not alive.
You’re either thankful for the time you had with your beloveds, or you’re wallowing in self-pity.
You’re either delighted by the memories you now have, or regretful for the memories you will no longer be able to engender.
Every single one of these false dichotomies are reductionist and simplistic. This isn’t the way grief works. You’re not always getting better or worse.
You are always moving, but memories are not moments of solitary emotion, they’re tapestries of all that we are: angry, joyful, lonely, bittersweet. The false dichotomies deny that reality.
Allow Yourself To Be Angry
When you're enraptured in guilt, you're going to be angry. What so many people fail to understand is that anger is often borne of love; that its expression is an essential component in the grieving process. The exhortations to not be angry end up doing exactly what they were intended to prevent: they exacerbate the anger, moving it out of the healthy expression of pain into the territory of self-hatred and self-sabotage.
Guilt tends to compound upon itself. If you suppress your anger you end up feeling guilty for being guilty. This is ludicrous. To find hope, you must allow yourself to exist in the hell that visits you amid loss. You can't ignore it. You can’t numb the pain away, drink it away, fuck it away, or wish it away with positive thinking. You must acknowledge it. Anger is part of that process.
Expect A Complicated Journey
The pain doesn’t ever fully dissipate. It changes, morphing into innumerable expressions. Over time, it makes its home inside of you.
You then have to choose to care for it for the rest of your life.
This is where people get grief all messed up. You don’t move from loss to renewal in a linear fashion.
It’s more like this:
Loss. Denial. Hatred. Sabotage. Failure. Guilt. Beauty. Acknowledgment. Refusal. Acceptance. Cynicism. Disbelief. Belief. Hopelessness. Faith. Disgust. Rage. Empathy. Refuge. Compassion. Heaven. Hell. Love.
It's a complicated, life-changing journey. You will fail endlessly. You will have moments where you want to die, and moments where you realize that living is the only option by which you can honor your memories.
This pain is the manifestation of who they were, and of who you are. Not of what you wish life would be, but of what it actually is. This is messy. You don't get a quick fix, a practical solution, and you certainly don't get "closure."
Instead, you get embrace after embrace. Each memory is revisited, to infinity and back. You hug these memories. You remember who your loved ones were. You remember how they loved you.
You never erase the grief. You build a relationship with it, caress it, and tend to it gently.
Acknowledge the Why
The most pernicious question in survivor guilt is why?
Why did I survive and he didn’t?
Why wasn’t I there when she died?
Why have I recovered? What's so special about me?
It’s very easy to say “don’t focus on the why...just create meaning with what you have.”
I get that, but it’s simplistic. Of course you’re going to focus on the why. In fact, I encourage you to, for a time. So many people worry about obsessing over the why that they end up obsessing over trying to not focus on the why. This never works.
Instead, allow yourself to meet the why. This will be very intense in the early stages of grief.
Every time the why rears its head, sit with it. Let the questions race through your mind. Eventually, you’ll reach the empty space where you see that no answer could ever suffice. This empty space is where you begin to find meaning, hope and the courage to take action.
If the why becomes an obsession in the long run, I recommend therapy. Just bear in mind that it will seem like an obsession at first, and this is normal. Trying to suppress the "negative feelings" in the early stages will only harm you. It is paramount that you allow the whys to run their course. If you find that these questions begin to damage your life in tangible ways, seek out a professional with experience working with people in trauma.
Embrace Empathy and Solidarity
I have built a thriving life for many reasons, but there is no doubt that empathy has been one of the greatest contributors to my showing up. This empathy is my constant companion. It is the vehicle by which I serve others, and choose to keep going.
Empathy makes you more willing to really be with all the others who must continue to live without the dead, and to stand with those whose lives will never be the same. Their lives will be ripped into a thousands aspersions of love—love that calls out, echoing across time and space, hoping for a response they will never receive in this life.
You are not alone. I’m not either. We’re all survivors of something. Every one of us will eventually survive something that someone else didn’t.
We are all making our own pilgrimage towards death. We may not be able to annihilate our guilt, but we can certainly unleash our love. No one gets to take this away from us.
Survivor guilt is so vivid not just because we survive, but because they survive too. Their memories, their experiences, their embrace, they all remain with us. Every part of who they were, every moment, every smile, survives.
It all survives.
We can't survive alone. Take my hand. Let's survive together.