It feels like after the past year and a few months (and many more years for some others) it would be helpful to talk about survivor’s guilt.
With so many events happening all over the world that seem scary and tragic, and no doubt really do shake us up, let us look at the feeling that many of us may have gotten after surviving all these events. Between a pandemic that created fear, loss, and uncertainty, a difficult and incomprehensible event in Meron, terror attacks, rocket attacks, war, anti-Semitic attacks, and then also the losses more common to us — the losses of our loved ones, to illness, age or even so-called “accidents”.
We, the survivors, may carry with us survivor’s guilt.
When Dr. Edith Eva Eger writes in her book The Choice about the day she arrived at Auschwitz and survived her mother at the selection by being sent to the line for the working after answering the guard in one word that she was with her “Mother” and “fating” her mother to death, she says:
“If I’d known my mother would die that day, I would have said a different word. Or nothing at all. I could have followed her to the showers and died with her. I could have done something different. I could have done more. I believe this. And yet. (This “and yet” opening like a door.) How easily a life can become a litany of guilt and regret, a song that keeps echoing with the same chorus, with the inability to forgive ourselves. How easily the life we didn’t live becomes the only life we prize. How easily we are seduced by the fantasy that we are in control, that we were ever in control, that the things we could or should have done or said have the power, if only we had done or said them, to cure pain, to erase suffering, to vanish loss. How easily we can cling to – worship – the choices we think we could or should have made.”
Dr. Eger sums up beautifully the way in which we create more suffering for ourselves by holding onto guilt after surviving the death of a loved one or the death of a person or people in an event in which we survived.
I have had my own dance with survivor’s guilt, since the age of nine when I survived with my mother and 4 siblings in a traumatic car crash that killed my father instantly. Having grown up in the shadow of that trauma, and not processing it completely, until this year, I have seen intimately what survivor’s guilt can do to a human.
It made me stuck. It made me freeze. It made me want to hide from the world. It made me angry. It made me depressed. It made me lonely. It made me not want to take responsibility for healing.
It was my safety. It was all I knew.
Feeling guilty so that I don’t have to feel anything else.
Blaming myself so that I don’t have to live the life of my dreams, and instead staying small and feeling unfulfilled with deep inner turmoil knowing that I’m not yet living the life I want to live.
Survivor’s guilt. It ate away at me for over two decades, carving it’s own home. In my brain. In my movements. In how I interacted with my whole world.
It consumed me and kept me very very safe.
I can look at the word safe now and see it from two very different angles. There is safety that is real and safety that is an illusion.
I created safety that was an illusion.
I am finally letting go of that distorted view of safety and realizing that to be truly safe is to always take a risk. And that is precisely what makes life so precious.
Risking vulnerability. Risking intimacy. Risking Joy.
Survivor’s guilt is what keeps us stuck. The ones who died are okay (or more than ok). What they want is for us to live the life we came here to live – to fill it up with joy, kindness, and connection. To stay stuck and frozen would be a disappointment to them. They want us to realize that we are ok too!
Dr. Eger figured this out in her 50’s when she finally returned to Auschwitz. I’m figuring it out in my late 30’s as I finally learn to forgive and deeply accept myself. I’m figuring it out by finally taking responsibility for the life I was given, and letting go of everything that holds me back.
Let’s all survive these times together, with unity, love, and kindness.
Let’s keep on building and doing what we came here to do.
Let’s not only be Survivors. Let’s be Thrivers.