Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What To Do With Survivor Guilt

Old friends on the park bench
“I had no idea he was so unhappy.”
That’s a line from The Big Chill, when Alex’s friends are trying to make sense of his suicide. But it was echoed in a phone interview I did this morning.
We had spoken earlier in the week, about one of his friends who died a long time ago. But today we talked about two other friends who died since then.
A group of them had spent the weekend at a reunion, and from all accounts, had a great time. So it came as a complete shock when two weeks later, one of them committed suicide.
“I had no idea he was so troubled,” was the observation. The friend had a drinking problem, though he showed no signs of it when they were together. But as most of us know, that doesn’t mean anything.
There was plenty of regret in his voice, twelve years after his friend’s suicide. What complicates this kind of grief is not knowing: not knowing the cause and who or what to blame.
Being (mostly) rational beings, we like to have pat answers to life’s mysteries. But this is one time when there are rarely answers that satisfy us.
He never said he felt guilty…exactly. But there was certainly regret in his voice.
What if his friend had given a sign that he was troubled? Could he have talked to him about it? Could he have gotten him past his dark mood? Could he have helped? They weren’t close, but still…
There are, of course, no answers to those questions. He’ll never know what, if anything, anyone could’ve done to prevent that suicide.
Before we hung up, we discussed two other friends – all from the same group – who are very much alive. We talked about what they’re doing now, and by the time we hung up, he decided to call one and visit the other.
Guilt doesn’t really serve a useful purpose. It’s often what gets us stuck in our grief. And although he may not have made a conscious connection to the friend who committed suicide, his decision to re-connect with other friends made me smile.
If you’re feeling guilty about a friend who died, if the regrets feel overwhelming, do something to avoid feeling that again. Reach out to friends who are still here.
You’ll be glad you did.


kathleen pooler said...

Viki, If I hadn't experienced my own survivor's guilt, I wouldn't be able to relate to this post. For me ,it was with a 24 year old Greek girl named Renee who had the same diagnosis of NonHodgkin's Lymphoma. I spoke with her at a Cancer Survivor's Day in June then saw her obituary in the paper a few months later. "Why did I make it and she didn't?" I asked. It was a strange feeling and one I didn't know what to do with at the time. Who would ever be able to understand? You strike at the heart of so many real issues here, Viki. And you are right, reaching out to others is the way through it all. Thanks for another great post.

Friend Grief said...

I think a lot of people equate survivor guilt with a traumatic event: war, accident, fire, etc. But as you said, survivor guilt can come at any time.