Survivor’s Guilt is Real. I’ve never survived a severe trauma such as a major accident where others died. But as a pastor and a police chaplain for many decades, I have spent time listening to survivors of incredible trauma (Holocaust survivors, war veterans, air-plane crash survivors, natural disaster survivors) describe the guilt they feel and the many questions they have about why they are still alive. My story isn’t dramatic. But none the less, I felt a few of the same emotions that I’ve heard expressed.
I Survived Hurricane Ian. Actually. I was out of the country during the hurricane. I was on a one month sabbatical. I was enjoying the beauty of traveling across Italy. On top of it all, I came back to a nearly perfect unshuttered house and yard. No trees down. No storm surge. Screened lanai undamaged. No roof leaks. Only beat-up shrubs and one roof tile cap missing but even that was found unbroken in the front yard. I was utterly amazed at how unscathed our home was. Even our two melodious wind chimes hanging off our lanai, were safely nestled in the rain gutter above the lanai.
But Our Neighbors and Friends? Badly damaged roofs. Trees uprooted. Homes flooded. Boats sunk. Cars underwater. Businesses demolished. All their earthly belongings destroyed. Homes unlivable. Some were traumatized by nine hours of hiding in a closet. Others watched neighbors die. One friend I visited in the hospital was trapped under heavy furniture for four days and then had his toes, foot, and ankle amputated. And finally, after the fifth surgery in 10 days, he showed me the stub of his leg… amputated just below his knee.
Why Me, I Asked? There are many possible answers. Some are so-so. Some are very bad views of the way God works. Some make others feel inferior and devalued. So I choose not to try to figure out the “whys” of the situation. Instead, a month post-hurricane, I daily choose the “what” of the situation.
Here are four things I’ve found to be helpful:
- ACKNOWLEDGEMENT – I just call it what it is. I have felt a level of survivor’s guilt. And then I make a choice to shift my perspective. I move from guilt to the reality of the situation. I need not have any shame for choosing nine months earlier to be gone on September 28, 2022. I do not need to feel guilty for having no damage. It was what it was. It is what it is. And it will be what it will be.
- GRATITUDE – I daily choose to be grateful that I didn’t return home to find a heap of debris. I’m grateful that I have the physical energy and emotional reserves to serve others who have been devastated by the storm. I don’t have my own problems of fatigue and depression to deal with. I’m grateful that I don’t have to spend hours on the phone daily trying to schedule adjusters, contractors and more to clean up and fix a mess. I choose gratitude that all my landscape trees and plants are budding and on their way to thriving again. I choose to give thanks when I see a butterfly flitting by or when I hear the twitter of migrating birds arriving to their winter sanctuary.
- COMPASSION – I choose to find to find ways to show compassion to those who have had extreme loss. I choose to carefully listen to their stories of trauma. I choose to try to identify with the depths of their fatigue and stress. I choose to intentionally value the things that are more important than my stuff. I choose to do my best to be patient on the road with all of the hurried work trucks trying to get to the next hurricane clean-up job. I choose to not join the gripers who complain daily about the debris not being cleaned up in front of our homes.
- GENEROSITY – I choose to give my time, my talent and my treasure to those who have greater needs than I do right now. It’s my choice to refuse to allow my neighbor to refill my gas cans that he borrowed to keep his generator running. I’m grateful that I had an unused generator in my garage that my neighbor could use when his generator died a couple days post-hurricane. I choose to give to disaster relief efforts. I choose to give an extra-large tip to the server who missed several days of work due to the power outages. I choose to pay the extra dental bill of a monthly-sponsored teenager in a Bolivian orphanage because I have no large insurance deductibles to pay. I choose generosity because I’ve been given the gift of survival.
So there you go. I can attest that Survivor’s Guilt is real, even though my case is a mild one compared to what some others have had to deal with. And, so much of life is about choices. In this case, choices to deal with the negative and bad in life and choices to respond to positive and good things in our lives. I’m grateful for choices. At all times. Concerning all things.
QUESTION: Have you ever had Survivor’s Guilt and what additional things could you add in dealing with it? (Please a comment below). Thanks.