Survivor Guilt – Identify and Overcome It

by J. Lee


Survival guilt is real and it is painful. It causes distress for those who have it and for loved ones who see their pain yet are ill-equipped to ease it.

Wikipedia: Survivor guilt (or survivor’s guilt; also called survivor syndrome or survivor’s syndrome) is a mental condition that occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not.

It can be attributed to veterans, crime survivors, those targeted in terrorist attacks, attendees at an event with with mass casualties and during natural disasters. Guilt is a heavy burden. A person takes on the responsibility for something traumatic, where they had little or no control, yet they blame themselves for surviving.

It is internal questioning why they survived when those around them did not. As for crime victims, they question why they lived when other victims were killed. It could apply to those in who survive a terrorist attack. They survived, but seeing those around them killed could haunt them.

The Trauma of Victimization – The trauma of victimization is a direct reaction to the aftermath of crime. Crime victims suffer a tremendous amount of physical and psychological trauma. The primary injuries victims suffer can be grouped into three distinct categories: physical, financial and emotional. When victims do not receive the appropriate support and intervention in the aftermath of the crime, they suffer “secondary” injuries.


Veterans can experience self-inflicted guilt in combat when they survive an attack when fellow soldiers did not survive. They can feel guilt for civilian deaths too. They blame themselves for incidents they had no control to prevent. Images of their memory is ingrained in their mind. In combat, they can have memories nightmares are made of.

Video: “In this clip, Frank Ochberg discusses survivor guilt.

Sometimes after a traumatic event, a person may feel guilty for surviving or being uninjured when others were harmed.”

(Story includes videos) Coping with loss and moving past guilt – Take the next step: Make the connection.
Every day, Veterans connect with useful resources and effective treatments for dealing with guilt. If guilt is affecting your health and well-being or getting in the way of your relationships, work, or daily activities, you may want to reach out for support. Consider connecting with:
  • A spiritual or religious adviser, such as a chaplain.
  • A mental health professional, such as a therapist.
  • Your doctor. Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does.
  • Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center. VA specializes in the care and treatment of Veterans.


Guilt can haunt victims who survive their attacker. Serial killers kill, but randomly the killer lets some of their victims live. Some of their victim escape, but afterwards they find out others killed, leaving them to question why they were so fortunate.

Rape survivors, sexual assault survivors, and child molestation survivors can carry guilt by not reporting their crime. Out of fear they won’t be believed, fear of their attacker or fear of the courts, they remain silent. Guilt gradually escalates. They question if their silence contributed to others being molested, raped or even killed.

Some victims can be held captive for hours, days and years. Once released, they wonder why they lived when other did not.

Escaping a Serial Killer: What Science Says About Victim Strategy: Based on his research, victims have only a 15.9% chance of surviving once a serial killer begins an assault or abducts them. 


Survivors guilt can occur where there are mass casualties. Examples could be a human stampedes at concerts, sporting events and riots. Structural defects have caused bridges and stadiums to collapse. Natural disasters such as fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunami’s are indiscriminate in their death tolls.

Wikipedia: List of human stampedes


Many survivors self-medicate. It can lead them to alcohol and drug addiction. Those sexually abused can become promiscuous.

Please reach out for help if you are trapped in any type of self abuse. Help can be found in faith communities, through counseling and in addiction recovery groups.


Suicide occurs when the pain and memories become too great. Survivors feel there is no way out so they decide their only option is death.

The reality is death is NOT a solution and should not be considered. If you are considering suicide or know someone who is please reach out for help.


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 1-800-273-8255, “We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.”

Veterans Crisis Line – “Call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online, or send a text message to 838255 to receive confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.”

Suicide Prevention Resource Center – “Faith communities are a natural setting for suicide prevention. Spiritual beliefs and practices tend to help people experience greater hope and meaning in their lives.”

(California) El Cajon Collaborative: Mental Health Adult Services – El Cajon Resource Directory – Local Organizations with Mental Health Expertise – “These organizations can help coordinate a community event, locate speakers who have expertise in mental health, offer peer and family supports, and provide general information on mental health as well as treatment, and available services for mental health issues.”

National Institute for Mental Health: Help for Mental Illnesses – “If you or someone you know has a mental illness, there are ways to get help. Use these resources to find help for you, a friend, or a family member.”

National Alliance of Mental Illness: Top 25 HelpLine Resources – Finding Treatment

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