Why Survivor’s Guilt?


Monday morning my sister was attacked by a pit bull. It bit deep into her forearm, then let go. Just as it was about to attack again – likely, more lethally – two Good Samaritans in a pickup truck intervened, probably saving my sister’s life. Moments later, a nurse also pulled over when she saw my sister on the ground bleeding.

The police, ambulance, and animal control arrived soon after. My sister spent the day in the emergency department. Now we must wait to see how she heals, both physically and psychologically.

I don’t typically publish personal stories about my family or people I know, despite the hundreds of pages of memoir I’ve written. But my sister encouraged me to share, mainly to protect others. The danger pit bulls pose to public safety when they lack proper supervision threatens lives as well as the social fabric of daily life. We all deserve to be safe and to feel safe when entering public spaces. Some cities have ordinances governing the ownership of these dogs, including mandatory sterilization. I wish that had been the case where my sister lives.

What touched me, and led to writing this blog post, was what she said during our conversation the next morning:

“I keep thinking how this is happening to other people.”

And then she told me it would be okay if I wrote a blog post about what happened to her.

My sister is a gentle soul. I once watched her pick up a dying bird, its suffering intensified by the blazing midday heat, and gently put it in the shade. Others walked by, their faces wincing in response to the bird’s wriggling body, but no one did anything (including me). For my sister, her gesture was as matter-of-fact as breathing.

But I found myself wondering if her compassion after the pit bull attack might be a common response to surviving a traumatic event, albeit an inclination that doesn’t get much notice when the topic is healing trauma. But perhaps if such inclinations were identified, and then acted on, there would be greater likelihood of avoiding survivor’s guilt later (not to mention increased safety for others).

I find myself thinking of the documentary Happy, which shares a scene from the lives of the !Kung San of southern Africa. If one member of the tribe has an illness or injury, the entire collective comes together in ritual and dance to promote healing. Besides deeply compassionate and restorative, this coming together makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. What is a threat to one is potentially a threat to all. I also imagine a long history of coming together around illness and injury such that eventually everyone has the opportunity to “pay it forward” following their own reliance on the group to pull them through adversity. Their collective response would actually bring the tribe closer, increasing everyone’s likelihood of survival.

Wikipedia defines survivor’s guilt as “a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves [sic] to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not.” Survivor’s guilt is often complicated by grief and the unresolved trauma of the survivor.

I have been plagued by survivor’s guilt most of my adult life. Not until I began to dedicate myself to healing others, and finding a community that shared my commitment to healing, did my survivor’s guilt begin to dissipate. I became an agent of change, but I also knew that I wasn’t the only one responsible for making a difference. I think this combination of taking action within a community is a lot like the !Kung San way of dealing with suffering and healing. It’s also a great way to heal survivor’s guilt, or perhaps avoid it entirely.

I sometimes think of survivor’s guilt not as a symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder, but as part of the recovery process that has become distorted by our highly individualistic and isolating society. Although we have evolved to recover from traumatic events, I don’t believe we have evolved to recover from trauma in isolation from fellow sufferers.

By its very nature, the process of healing from trauma transcends the boundaries of the mental health field and its focus on healing individuals (and less frequently, intimate relationships, families, and small groups). It’s not that therapy isn’t important – even vital – for healing from trauma. Often, it is (and certainly was for me). Yet I think survivor’s guilt speaks to the evolutionary value of how we respond to trauma, and the importance of acting on the urge to help humankind that traumatic events call forth.

I think this is why some veterans see resolution of PTSD symptoms when given opportunities to take part in restoration efforts. I also think this is why efforts by veterans to save other veterans from committing suicide – suicide attempts that are often related to survivor’s guilt – help keep them alive as well.

Do any of us ever fully recover from traumatic experiences without helping others at some point on our roads to recovery? Like my sister’s first thoughts the day after her pit bull attack, there may be a natural inclination to protect that is at risk of becoming survivor’s guilt when we lack opportunities to speak about our tragedies, protect others, or help people with similar experiences heal.

Since it was her arm she writes with that was attacked, I write this post for my sister as her proxy, reminding all who read this of the dangers that pit bulls pose when their owners fail to control them. We all share the obligation of keeping public spaces safe, just as we have an obligation to forewarn others when we have been hurt or threatened. And when we help others, especially after trauma, we may also be saving ourselves.

© 2015 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).

Written By Laura K Kerr, Ph.D

Why Survivor’s Guilt? was originally published @ Laura K. Kerr, PhD and has been syndicated with permission.


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