Survivor’s guilt affects the people who survive events that caused the death of others.
The symptoms are feelings of regret, sadness, guilt, and powerlessness. Survivor’s guilt can affect soldiers in combat, people who have escaped natural disasters, and anyone who has lost someone to addiction or any other disease. We are filled with remorse, wondering why we survived when others did not.
David was not only my older brother; he was my best friend. Of the five children in my family, he was the eldest, and I was 21 months younger. We were only one grade apart in school, so with the exception of two out of twelve school years, we were on the same bus and shared the same friends. In our teenage years we did everything together. We cried together when my parents divorced. We played in a band together. We pooled our money and bought our first car together. When I left home at a young age and got myself in trouble, he was there for me. When I ended up living in the city all alone at 18 years old, he was the only one who visited me. Dave was the person who told me that I should go to college. He believed in me when I did not even believe in myself. He helped me through those first two years of college by paying most of the bills for our two- bedroom apartment. He saved my life more than once.
“If you knew David, you would never know that he struggled with addiction.”
He was always laughing, always had a bright outlook on life, and was a talented musician and writer. He got a standing ovation at our high school talent show. He taught me how to lighten up, how to believe in myself, and how to handle hardships in life. He was also the first person I smoked weed with, and I was the first person he did meth with.
When I had enough of living the party life, I put the drugs down. David and I had numerous talks about getting clean, but he did not think he had a problem. The last time I saw him was four days before he died, at his daughter’s first birthday party. The last time I spoke with him was the night before my father found him in his apartment, all alone, on the floor. He was drunk and incoherent and I was so frustrated with him that I got off the phone, promising to call him back. Those phone calls were getting worse and worse and were hard on me because I was trying to stay clean. I was angry at him that he would not stop partying. I wanted to do the clean life together, as we had done everything else together.
“That night was the last time I heard my brother’s voice. After all he did for me, the last thing I gave him was a broken promise.”
Survivor’s guilt? I am the queen.
April 2, 1992, was the dreadful day. It was Good Friday. He was 28 years old. It was a long time ago, and still the feelings of survivor’s guilt hit me and make me sad.
When he passed away, my life turned inside out. At that time, I had a nine-month old baby. It would have been so easy to pick up alcohol or drugs again and drown the pain, but I was a nursing mother and my baby needed me.
My younger brother, Chris, was also hit hard with survivor’s guilt. My father’s wife, whom I never lived with because I had already moved out by the time he remarried, lost her son, Jon, to cocaine a few years later. Jon and Chris were the same age. After Jon died, Chris went on a downward cycle of addiction. He did not know why he lived when his two brothers had died. Chris looked to drugs and alcohol to drown those feelings. My family suffered greatly during those years, watching another son struggle with addiction. We were constantly worried with losing him, too. We were powerless, once again. Chris went into rehab a few years ago. There are no words to express the joy I have now that my brother has over two years clean. I have a brother again.
If someone you care about has recently passed away, and you are struggling with feelings of guilt and remorse, you are most likely suffering from survivor’s guilt.
Here are some suggestions that may help through the pain:
- Try to return to normal daily routines. When I lost my brother, I took a few weeks off from work. I could not function. I walked around in a daze. Going back to work did not heal the wound, but it got me out of myself for the hours I was on the clock.
- Talk to someone. There are many counselors and therapists that can help with grief. Finding the right one is important. After a few months of not being able to get through a day without crying, I found a counselor. On my third session, he asked me how many siblings I have. I told him that I have four: two brothers and two sisters. He told me that until I can say that I have one brother and two sisters, I would not heal. I told him a few bleep bleep words, and walked out of his office. I was so angry. How can someone try to tell me that my brother never existed? After a week of stewing in anger, I got back on the phone and found a kind-hearted therapist that helped me sort through my feelings about my brother’s death. So, do not give up. There are plenty of therapists out there: find one that you click with.
- Support Groups. Support groups for survivor’s guilt and grief can help. My mother attended Compassionate Friends for quite a few years after the death of her son, and it helped her tremendously to be able to share with people who had gone through the same pain.
The emotions we feel when we lose someone to addiction can be overwhelming. We are left wondering what we did wrong, what we could have done better, and whether our loved one would still be alive if we had done something differently. If you have lost someone to addiction, you are not alone. Talking about your feelings with others does not bring your loved one back, but it helps you learn how to go on without them.