Survivor’s guilt

Survivor’s guilt

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2008 9:53 pm
By: By Don Harold Lawrence

In his novel, “Dark Rivers of the Heart,” Dean Koontz writes a scene in which FBI agent Roy Miro is involved in a conversation with Dr. Nero Mandello, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon, regarding a scar on Spencer Grant’s face (pages 224-228). As the doctor studies Spencer’s facial photograph he describes the type of scar and possible causes. He goes on to detail the type of surgery that would be necessary to lessen the scar. Then the FBI agent asks: “Why would a man live with that scar if it could be made all but invisible?” The doctor answers: “Could be guilt. If he lived through an accident in which others were killed, he could have survivor’s guilt. Especially if loved ones died. He feels no better than they were, and he wonders why he was spared when they were taken. He feels guilty just for living. Suffering with the scar is a way of atoning … I’ve had patients with that problem. They didn’t want surgery because survivor’s guilt led them to feel they deserved their scars.” In her textbook on grief, “Treatment of Complicated Mourning,” Therese A. Rando, writes: “Quite frequently, survival guilt is observed in situations in which the survivor could have died but did not, whereas others did lose their lives. … Issues of perceived debts owed to the dead arise here and complicate mourning” (page 481). In her book, “How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies,” Rando has a good discussion on survival guilt in regard to the loss of a child. “One of the major stumbling blocks in resolving parental grief is the unnaturalness of a child’s dying before a parent. This is something that most parents cannot comprehend. You expect, as the parent, you will die before your child. The death of your child, therefore, is a death out of turn. It violates the cycle of nature in which the young grow up and replace the old. The very order of the universe is shattered, and this is something that you might not be able to make sense of. You might experience ‘survival guilt,’ the guilt that people feel when the one they love has died and they continue to live” (page 164). Survival guilt — feeling guilty for being alive while your loved one is dead — is widespread. It is often experienced, for example, in the case of an accident where one person survives a car wreck and the other dies. Another scenario could be war-related, i.e., one’s buddy took a bullet or shrapnel that would have killed the soldier who survived. If you are experiencing some type of survivor’s guilt, you may find that talking this out with a counselor will provide a means of understanding what is happening to you as well as alleviating the intense emotions that are part of this experience. This will enable you to regain control of your life so that you can once again function and move beyond this dilemma into the future. Don Harold Lawrence is coordinator of SUNRISE, which is sponsored by Shackelford Corporation. He may be contacted by mail at 145 Abernathy Drive, Adamsville, TN 38310-3001 or by telephone or fax at (731) 632-4483. His Web address is www.shackelfordfuneraldirectors.com. Published in The Messenger 6.26.08

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