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The shadow side of survivorship

You may have heard of the phenomenon known as “survivor guilt" (described at this link by What's Your Grief). It’s fairly well documented that many survivors of traumatic events – wartime violence, natural disasters, mass shootings – feel guilty that others died when they did not. The guilt can be especially crippling when something a survivor chose to do, or not do, somehow contributed to the death of one or more people in the situation. Survivor guilt also occurs in people who have come through a health crisis while others have succumbed to the same illness or injury they faced.

Less well known or understood is survivor guilt experienced by people like me – people who have no connection with whatever caused the death of a loved one. I was nearly 2000 miles away at the moment my brother died, and nothing that I did (or didn’t do) or said (or didn’t say) was connected to the circumstances surrounding his death. But I feel survivor guilt anyway.

Apparently, all it takes for me to feel survivor guilt is the fact that I’m alive and he’s not.

From one of my grandmother's photo shoots, 1979. I think this print got beat up from being carried in my father's wallet for years.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem reasonable for me to feel guilty, because the word guilt presupposes freedom of choice, and implies a choice was made. I made no choice, and had no choice available. For me, though, the concept of deserving plays a part. My brother deserves to be alive as much as I do, so it makes no sense that one of our lives has been cut short. Basically, I feel guilty that I’m here simply because he isn’t. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to be here – I’m glad I’m here. But he should be here too.

Often I experience a trigger that doesn’t seem like it should be a trigger at all – a beautiful day, a great cup of coffee, a special time with my family. Even as I feel joy in such things, survivor guilt alters that joy, mixing it with pain that Frank is not here to enjoy them. Somehow I feel unduly advantaged, undeservedly prioritized. Guilty. And disheartened at how the glow of wonderful moments can dim in the shadow of my brother’s absence. No, it doesn’t happen with every wonderful moment. But it happens, often enough.

Maybe my notion of survivorship comes from years of reading obituaries. Almost every obituary notes that the deceased was “survived by” one or more family members, naming those who live on. My brother was survived by his family, including me. I survive my brother. With my survivorship comes the confusing combination of gratitude for, and guilt about, being alive.

Many people who experience survivor guilt find solace in working to improve something related to the loss. Patients in remission from cancer work may raise funds for research; those who escaped mass shootings may advocate for gun control and greater security. What can I do? I can fight against drunk driving. I can help my family thrive. I can appreciate the fleeting beauty of a random day.

I am working to cope with the shadow side of survivorship. Although the shadow doesn’t lessen my joys, it has made them more challenging to access, more unwieldy, more complicated – and, all the while, more precious.

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