Victoria Noe

Award-winning Author, Speaker, Activist

Survivor Guilt

St. Paul's Chapel near Ground Zero
Perhaps because I’m in New York right now, or because I’m re-visiting the 9/11 Memorial this evening, I had survivor guilt on my mind.
This is a post from last year that looks at how guilt – and anger – complicate grief for your friend.

In keeping with what turned out to be a week of considering anger’s role in grief, I thought I’d turn to one of the triggers for anger: survivor guilt.
The research for my book has provided a glimpse into some typically closed societies, among them military and firefighters. Both are groups charged with keeping us safe, both are groups whose jobs are so dangerous they know every day is potentially their last.
The people they work with - men and women - are a tight-knit group. They consider themselves a family; Band of Brothers was not an accidental title.
Because of the nature of their close living conditions, and the hazards of their work, they must have complete trust in each other. They hold our lives - and the lives of those who work with them - literally in their hands.
Their grief is complicated by these unique situations. Their workplace is their home, after all, sleeping and eating together as well as fighting fires or the enemy. They spend most of their time with their co-workers.
In David Halberstam’s excellent book, Firehouse, about his neighborhood Upper West Side firehouse after 9/11, he recounts the difficulties faced by the one firefighter who survived that day. Twelve answered the call; one came back. He only survived because a photographer on the pile saw him sticking out of the rubble and got him to medical assistance. He was lucky.
But there were those who did not consider him lucky: they resented his survival. Why him? Why was he the only one to survive? He became the worst kind of celebrity, getting attention for something that he was embarrassed about: surviving.
Sgt. Dakota Meyer, whose story was told here last week, disobeyed orders to help his men, rescuing 36 American and Afghan soldiers. But that superhuman accomplishment is tarnished by his own survivor guilt. While he was able to help retrieve the bodies of four comrades (a fifth died later of wounds), he was haunted by the fact that they didn’t make it.
Yes, surviving is its own reward, and cause for celebration. But as story after story after story of heroism in the military, in the first responder community, even in daily life has proven, sometimes it just doesn’t make sense who lives and who dies. There is a randomness that doesn’t satisfy our need for clean, logical explanations.
“I just talked to her a week ago.”
I’ve always found it a little amusing when people say things like this after a friend has died. What? They must be alive because they talked to you recently? We grasp for straws, for explanations - no matter how bizarre - to help us understand.
One of my earliest blog posts was about the episode of Family Ties where Alex suffers from acute survivor guilt when his best friend is killed in a car accident. “I should’ve been there,” he cried, as if he had the power to prevent the accident and save his friend’s life.
There’s an episode of Doctor Who where we see that his companion, Donna, could’ve missed meeting him altogether. She is sitting in her car at an intersection, arguing with her mother about whether to make a left turn or a right turn.
Sometimes it’s as simple as that - your choice of direction at an intersection dictates the rest of your life.
Stories of 9/11 are full of these kinds of random, unconscious decisions that literally meant the difference between dying with your co-workers on the 91st floor and surviving: stopping for a shoeshine, walking your child to the first day of kindergarten, changing shifts with another firefighter. And every one of those stories includes a variation on “I don’t know why I’m here and they’re not.”
I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule for coming to terms with survivor guilt. Some people deal with it by making sure that their friend is always remembered: charitable contributions, family support, or maybe finishing a project they started. Some people use their friend’s death - and their own survival - as a catalyst for making sweeping changes in their own lives. Every one of them struggles with the unanswerable question, “why?”
For them - and for us all - surviving isn’t enough. We need acceptable answers. But we have to accept that we probably won’t get them, at least not in this lifetime.
We also need to remember that just surviving isn’t enough.
We need to live each day to its fullest, and be grateful for having known that friend.