In one of the final scenes of the amazing movie “Schindler’s List”, the character of Schindler has an agonizing break down. He had spent many war years saving the lives of a small group of people. In this scene, he is being honored and thanked by some of those survivors. Rather than accepting their appreciation, Schindler apologizes. He becomes totally distraught that he had not saved all the people on his original list, some of the survivors’ families. The gold ring on his finger becomes a symbol of his perceived selfishness, because he kept it rather than use it to save one more person. He can’t see the good that he did. He can’t accept the love and gratitude of the people he saved. He feels it is wrong that he lives when so many million died, so horribly.
Mr. Schindler had an extreme case of Survivor’s Guilt.
It occurs when there is a national disaster, like war, 9/11, school shootings, bridge collapses, airplane crashes.
It occurs when there are natural disasters, like Katrina, tornadoes and hurricanes, floods, fires, earthquakes.
It occurs when there has been an accident.
It occurs when someone dies of a disease or infection, violence, or suicide.
Survivor Guilt (SG) needs professional help, as soon as the symptoms develop. Most often, it is not addressed. The person goes on in life, but not living. They don’t allow themselves joy or happiness, and feel even worse if they enjoy something even for a short time.
Untreated, this is passed to the next generation, and the next. A person with SG can’t be allowed pleasure, and can’t permit anyone around them to have it, either. While a SG mother won’t allow herself a good, hot meal, she’ll prepare one for her family. But the meal is accompanied by comments on amounts of food taken, remembering when she was lucky to have a cup of broth. Heaven forbid food should be left on a plate, when so many are starving in the world. In time, no one can enjoy a meal. Little ones learn to associate pleasure with guilt, and take that with them into adulthood. They think this is the way to live. A third generation will learn it, too, unless someone stops and thinks it all through logically.
Learning to be thrifty with money was not the only byproduct of the Great Depression. Many think of that term – Great Depression – as an economic one. It also describes the Nation’s emotional state of the time. SG closely resembles depression, but it’s not the same
Survivor Guilt needs professional help, as soon as the symptoms develop. As soon as you recognize them in yourself or those around you.
Untreated SG adversely affects one’s life, relationships, the ability to hold a job, concentration and follow through, sleep, self image, ability to handle even mild stress, anger management, reaction to even small changes, and the ability to feel emotion.
SG may manifest itself in anxiety, depression, irritability, withdrawal, and psychosomatic symptoms of the stomach and heart. There may be an obsession with the past and a fear of persecution.
SG is defined as UNJUSTIFIED reaction to traumatic situations. Unjustified! If you had gone back into that burning house, you wouldn’t have saved another life, you would most likely have lost your own.
Now, if you were the one who set the fire, if you were the drunk driver in the accident, if you were the hijacker, this is another issue completely. This article is not addressing that.
Here is a list of possible SG Symptoms
Sleeplessnes. Nightmares. Flashbacks
Inability to get along with others, especially in close relationships
Paranoia and distrust
Unwillingness to discuss, or visit the site of, the trauma
Persistent, intense fear and anxiety
Easily irritated or agitated
Feel numb or detached
No pleasure in previously enjoyable activities
Feel helpless, out of control
Preoccupied with the traumatic event
Physical symptoms – headaches, stomach, heart, dizziness
Suicidal thoughts, gestures, plans
Survivor Guilt needs professional help, as soon as the symptoms develop. There is treatment. There is recovery. There is hope.
Part 3 – Survivor Guilt /Coping and Healing
Part 4 – Suicide Survivors
Part 5 – Military Survivor Guilt