Q: My brother was killed in a car accident. I was in the car with him at the time of the crash. I feel guilty I survived. If I had said or done something differently, he might still be alive. How can I let go of survivor’s guilt over this death?

Survivor’s Guilt is a real thing. How could it not be? You’ve been part of significant trauma, a catalyst that demands you look at the world differently. Almost anyone would feel guilt and remorse if they were directly involved in something as severe as a car accident.

Someone you loved died in an event, and you didn’t. That’s profound, and it raises heavy questions about the meaning of our lives, why we were “spared,” and what control we may or may not have over events.

Everyone thinks about the “woulda, coulda, shouldas” after a death. In fact, people do it after other major life events, like after a divorce. “Maybe if I hadn’t argued so much, he wouldn’t have left.” Or, children of alcoholics saying, “If only I had hidden his bottles.”What’s happening with survivor’s guilt is that we feel empathic, and that triggers us to take on some ownership of an event. Guilt and shame are universal subtexts to our lives on this planet. But taking responsibility for someone else’s actions? That’s just magical thinking.

The truth is that our small acts don’t necessarily yield a different outcome every time. There are far too many variables. Taking responsibility for it just oversimplifies a complex situation. That’s the rational explanation, but you are living in an emotional space right now. So let’s talk about the emotional reality.

When you say you feel survivor’s guilt, what I hear is that you recognize that you wish things could be different. You are longing for a different outcome that would let your brother still be with you. It's ok to feel that way. You are just recognizing that you would do anything to make this person come back.

As a survivor, you have the opportunity to stay mired in the guilt you are feeling, or to move beyond that and explore options for living more fully. For example, I’ve seen many survivors channel that emotional response into exploring feelings and beliefs about a larger being, and our purpose on this earth.

Falling victim to survivor’s guilt can guide you into depression, or a fear-based mentality. Or even glorifying the victim who died and shaming yourself. I’ve seen people become trapped in those intense feelings.

Instead, I encourage you to try to hold the significance of that traumatic moment and use it to move into a higher awareness. An effective way to purge fears and guilt is to talk about it and put it out there, either in counseling or in groups of people with similar experiences. You’ll begin to process and find your own path for how to convert the guilt into growth.

I can’t take away your pain, but the next time you feel this tug, I invite you to redirect your thinking a bit. Remind yourself that you are wishing for things to be different. Recognize that, and accept that feeling without jumping to regret for something you couldn’t control.

Anyone would want to prevent something bad from happening, but we don’t have that power. Forgive yourself and accept your grief, but not the guilt.

 

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