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Life According To Lenson

Dealing With Survivor's Guilt
Posted by Eileen Lenson on Dec 30, 2012 - 10:53:51 AM

UNITED STATES—In the moments and days following the horrific Newtown school shootings that took the lives of 20 children and six adults, the typical reaction of survivors was elation to be alive.  But for some, the upcoming months will bring nightmares, repeated mental images of what they have witnessed, self-blame, depression, and even thoughts of suicide.


Survivor's guilt is the strong feeling of guilt that people experience when they feel they did not deserve to survive a circumstance in which others died. For some, it is feelings of self blame, believing that that they did something wrong, which resulted in the loss of life of others. Faculty and students, parents and family members, as well as neighbors and first responders, are at risk for experiencing survivor's guilt. 

School teachers routinely refer to their pupils as "my students," and higher ranking administrators refer to their staff as "my teachers." Educators typically view their role as being an extension of the family.  Parents entrust their children to the school faculty, who in turn devote considerable resources, both intellectual and economic, to ensure the safety of students in their care.  Following the shootings, school personnel may feel they failed in their duty to protect their students and faculty from harm.  Instead of viewing themselves as fortunate that they successfully hid below a desk as the assailant walked by, or relief that they were able to safely hunker down with their own students elsewhere on the campus, they may feel the anguish of guilt that they failed to protect or rescue others that had been entrusted to them.


Neighbors living on adjacent streets to the school may experience feelings of survivor's guilt.  They are able to go about their daily lives in a happy manner, but are visually impacted by the murders.  Memorials for the murdered accumulate on the school grounds, and normal routine is replaced by reporters descending on the neighborhood.  The school, once a place filled with the sounds of children remains eerily empty and silent. The anguish for neighbors is that despite their proximity, they had no power to prevent the assault. 


School mates and siblings of the deceased children may conclude that inasmuch as the shootings could have happened in their classroom rather than the victim's classroom, they wonder, "Why not me?" They try to make sense of why they deserve to live, but others do not.  Exacerbating the situation are the memorials and discussions of the deceased, in which they are spoken about in an idealized manner.  If the children from other classrooms feel they do not measure up to the deceased, they may feel unworthy.  This unworthiness may result in the children feeling they do not deserve to live and that the wrong child died.


In addition, young children often exhibit 'magical thinking,' the belief that their actions can cause unrelated actions.  Much like the childhood game of 'step on a crack, break your mother's back,' so can surviving children believe they did something to cause the horrific event at their elementary school. 


First responders may experience survivor's guilt because they were unable to stop the shooter sooner or because they were unable to save a mortally wounded child.  It is not uncommon for first responders to feel helpless and guilty that they couldn't prevent more loss of life.


No parent expects to outlive their child.  It goes against the natural order of life, and parents may suffer survivor's guilt as a result.  Loss of one's role as parent to a treasured child can lead to feelings of insecurity, confusion and emptiness.  Oddly enough, survivor's guilt, which includes shame and emotional pain, offers a stabilizing way for parents to offset these feelings.  It provides a sense of meaning and structure in an otherwise uncertain and helpless period of time.  It also serves to connect the living with the deceased.


Feelings of personal responsibility that are temporary and last only a few days do not present a problem to survivors of shootings, such as occurred in Newtown shootings.  However, if survivors continue to feel responsible, they risk getting stuck in the destructive feelings of guilt.  If, despite indisputable facts that point to their not being responsible, their guilt is not resolved, they will not be able to proceed through the healing process of coping with loss.


Unresolved survivor's guilt can be fatal.  Even though all evidence can show that a person is not responsible in any way, shape or form for another person's death, the irrational feelings of responsibility can cause a person to contemplate suicide.


People must examine their guilt feelings directly if they are going to be able to successfully resolve these painful emotions.   It is impossible to understand why some people should die in a tragedy while others are fortunate to live. It may never be understood, and answers may never be forthcoming. Learning to accept things we can't understand or change is necessary in moving forward. 


Feelings of guilt may be helping survivors cope with the loss.  However, it is important for survivors to understand that it will not diminish the memory of those who have died if the survivors find value in being alive.   Treasuring life and being happy does not mean that the deceased is at risk for diminishing in value or being forgotten.  Rather, by being aware of one's own mortality, people can re-evaluate their priorities and choose to live life with more meaning and purpose.  This can turn their survival into a gift.  They can devote time towards projects that honor the deceased.  They can develop skills that would never have been explored had they not had the life changing experience.


People experiencing survivor's guilt tend to isolate themselves.  Reaching out to people who appear withdrawn, and speaking with them about the events in a non-judgmental manner can help them begin the process of reconnecting with life, living, and other relationships.


Unresolved survivor's guilt can be fatal. Even though all evidence can show that a person is not responsible in any way, shape or form for another person's death, the irrational feelings of responsibility can cause a person to commit suicide. Guiding people who are experiencing survivor's guilt into getting professional help, such as with a psychotherapist, clergy, or life coach can help immensely, for a little intervention appropriately timed can mean the difference between good and bad mental health.  Professional help can offer those with survivor's guilt develop a more realistic interpretation of the situation.  Survivors can learn to accept that circumstances were out of their control, and that they did the best that they could at that time.  Professional help can also help the survivor with gradual acceptance and increased self-compassion.  This will help survivors go forward with joy and a different, but meaningful, view of life.



Eileen Lenson, ACSW, MSW, Board Certified Coach, is a life coach in private practice.  She has worked for 30 years with grief and bereavement, and has published and spoken internationally on the topic.  Lenson can be reached by telephone at 949-244-5100, or by email at  Description of her life coaching services is at


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