In David Halberstam’s book The Firehouse, he recounts the story of his neighborhood firehouse, near Lincoln Center on New York’s upper west side. On September 11, 2001, thirteen firefighters raced to the scene of the World Trade Center attack. One returned. The only reason he survived is that a photographer saw his arm sticking out of the rubble at Ground Zero. Not only did he suffer from guilt, but some people hated him for surviving: why him and not one of the others?
Suicide is a growing issue, in the military and among first responders. Grief mixed with survivor guilt is a significant component of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Men and women (mostly young) who put their lives on the line every day are used to being in danger. But when a comrade dies in the line of duty, they are often ill-prepared for the grief that hardens into survivor guilt.
You’d think that these are people who will mourn the deaths of their colleagues and move on. Danger and death are part of the job description. They take some comfort in grieving rituals. We see the impressive parades, dress uniforms, bagpipes, black and purple bunting. But those rituals are public, and are over within days.
What we don’t see – and don’t think about – is the guilt they carry, the feeling they can’t shake that they could somehow have prevented their friend’s death. They may even believe they should’ve died instead of their friend.
What a terrible way to live: so terrible that suicide may feel like their best option.
Survivor guilt is not limited to these specific professions. People who survived natural disasters, or terrorist attacks, car accidents or the early days of the AIDS epidemic can also feel crushing guilt for having survived.
“Why am I alive, instead of them?”
Next week we’ll look at some attempts to answer that question.