Survivor Guilt

“These tough and painful experiences provide the opportunity to see who you are and what you are made of….Only a courageous person can accept and pursue the opportunity to face herself, to dive into a sea of hurt, unanswered questions, and loneliness in order to find the light.  To find answers.  To find out who you are.”
—Michelle Akers

Survivor Guilt

Yesterday CNN did an interview with Dr. Dale Archer, clinical psychologist, who spoke about the psychological aftermath of the tornadoes that swept through states in the south and Midwest.  He talked specifically about the kind of survivor guilt experienced by Jason Miller, the only survivor out of six who took cover in his double-wide trailer in Pekin, Indiana.

Mr. Miller had urged the family who lived next to him in a smaller trailer to take shelter in his trailer.  The force of the tornado blew all of them into the air and they landed in a field nearby.  One of the children survived briefly before she died later in the hospital.  Mr. Miller had multiple broken bones, but his real pain was emotional.  He was suffering from survivor guilt, feeling responsible for the deaths of the family he had tried to help.

I always pay attention to anything related to survivor guilt since I struggle with it every day since my sister died.  We both fought breast cancer at the same time, but I lived and she didn’t.  It was months after her death before I sought out a grief counselor who talked to me about survivor guilt.   While it was comforting to know there was actually a name for what I was experiencing, I was left wondering what to do about it.  I often feel that the wrong sister died.

Dr. Archer said there are three kinds of survivor guilt—logical guilt, illogical guilt, and depressive guilt.  Obviously, Mr. Miller was suffering from illogical guilt.  He was not really responsible for the death of the family he had tried to help.  Logically, staying in their more fragile trailer would inevitably have meant disaster for them anyway.

Logical guilt is harder to overcome because the person has actually done something to cause the death of another, perhaps driving drunk for example.

I was not responsible for my sister’s death, but I think the fact that I survived breast cancer and she did not, made it borderline depressive survivor guilt for me.  Dr. Miller said that survivor guilt is now included in the broader term of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.   We have all read stories about the aftermath of 9/11 and the problems faced by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

I found a very informative website that actually does offer some assistance in moving beyond the guilt (

Dr. Kathleen Nader, D.S.W., offers information on survivor guilt and also provides a list of questions to help deal with the problem.  Getting beyond the guilt is something I wish I could do.   I sympathize with anyone who struggles with it, and I wish them well in their attempts to overcome it.


One thought on “Survivor Guilt

  1. Kelly says:

    I would desperately like to get in touch with Mr. Miller as I am a writer who is searching for others that may struggle with survivors guilt, like myself, to potentially interview for my book. Thank you kindly.

    Kelly – Idaho

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