Survivor’s Guilt vs. Friend’s Remorse

Six years ago during my son’s second deployment his unit suffered many casualties. In my desire to learn how to help him through the vast array of emotions I assumed he’d experience I read several articles. Throughout many of them was the term ‘survivor’s guilt’. A term I’d never heard before it intrigued me. It’s defined as ‘guilt or remorse felt after the death of a loved one’. However, after more study and thought, I realized that ‘survivor’s guilt’ or ‘remorse’ occurred in other circumstances besides death.

When Brian returned stateside, I tried to hone in on my mother’s intuition to figure out how he was affected and how I could encourage and support him.  I could tell he struggled with the ‘why me?’ question that many survivor’s ask. But, I didn’t truly understand the deep seeded turmoil that survivor’s guilt can create until I was hit with it unexpectedly.

On the evening prior to our son’s anticipated discharge and homecoming we received a call that  ‘the Army’ was at a friend’s home. Late on a Sunday evening we knew immediately what that meant and it wasn’t good. As we drove the few miles to their home, I wondered how I would be able to help them deal with their loss, when in less than 12 hours our son would be home.  The next few weeks I struggled emotionally. My heart ached for our friends, yet I was so thrilled to have our son home and beginning his civilian life.

Each time we talked I felt guilty for experiencing joy in the midst of her pain.  I’d purposely avoid mentioning Brian because I didn’t want to remind her of her loss.  As time passed, I wasn’t quite as careful about mentioning Brian around her, but to this day, over four years later, there are times I battle with survivor’s guilt.

I’ve also felt survivor’s guilt when talking with other mom’s whose child was severely injured or those with PTSD.  Because of the emotional and physical casualties our son’s unit endured, I understand how easily it could’ve been Brian that didn’t return home or returned wounded physically or mentally. I often wonder to myself, “why them and not us?” I wonder why I’m blessed to experience life with our son as he lives his life and grows into his role as a husband and new dad. I can joyously anticipate his future, while so many only have their memories and others fight daily to survive.

However, recently in contemplating and praying about survivor’s guilt I’ve realized that there have been errors in my thoughts regarding this issue.

First, when we take on guilt we’re saying we’re responsible and blame ourselves for whatever event occurred.  Obviously I wasn’t responsible for the death of our friends’ son, the injuries to others or the families’ pain, yet I felt guilty.

Secondly, feeling guilty about a situation, which occurred to someone else, changes the focus from being about those directly affected to myself. My thoughts should be on how I can encourage and help those that are suffering, not on how bad I feel because my life is going okay at that moment.

Third and most importantly, I realized that by focusing on my guilt because I may have said to myself, “I’m glad it wasn’t me”, or because at times I’m happy while a friend agonizes, I’m taking away the awe and wonder of the blessings God bestows on me everyday.  Instead of hanging on to the guilt, I need to shout inwardly “Thank you God, for my undeserved blessings!” I should be using the incident to wake me up to all that God has given me.

Of course I would never rub my blessings in my friends’ faces, but I can use my sense of hope, and love to encourage them, to share in their pain. Because remorse means to experience sorrow or regret I shouldn’t be remorseful that the tragedy didn’t occur to me, which results in ‘survivor’s guilt’. However, I should feel sorrow and regret that it happened to anyone.

What I should feel emotionally when tragedy happens to others is what I will call ‘friend’s remorse’.  To be a friend I must show I care immensely, be truly sorrowful, empathetic, and supportive when anything that hurts them occurs.  By practicing ‘friend’s remorse’ I will be able to acknowledge my blessings while empathizing, supporting and encouraging those around me therefore taking the focus off myself thus minimizing if not eliminating survivor’s guilt.


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