What Is Survivor’s Guilt? How Can First Responders Cope?

Published on December 10, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

Feeling lucky to be alive is an emotion many of us might not associate with guilt. Some may not even realize they are wrestling with it, or they struggle to recognize that the weight they are carrying alongside grief is a sense of guilt. This feeling can manifest itself after someone experiences a loss or a traumatic event and develops post-traumatic stress (PTS). They may feel a sense of responsibility and are grappling with questions of why did this happen? What could I have done differently? Why did I survive when others did not? These questions can weigh incredibly heavy on a person who feels like they could have done something different to change or prevent the outcome.

When there is an emergency, first responders are the ones heading to the action, actively trying to prevent the loss of life or a traumatic outcome. This puts them at a disproportionate risk of witnessing or being involved in situations that evoke these emotions. Survivor’s guilt takes the form of a military veteran wishing he or she could have done something more to save a fallen soldier or a firefighter feeling guilty about not being able to save a life while risking their own in the blaze of a fire.  

Facing Survivor’s Guilt Can Be Complicated

Sometimes the mess of emotions that ensues after surviving a traumatic experience can be difficult to untangle and manage. Going through the stages of grief while also struggling with survivor’s guilt can bring on complex emotions that can feel insurmountable. Identifying precisely what you are feeling can help untangle these strands of emotions and allow you to start coping with them individually, instead of trying to deal with them all at once.  

Once an individual has identified that what they are feeling may be survivor’s guilt, coping with it can be just as complex. The nature of this emotion can often bring about thoughts that they did not deserve to survive when someone else did not. This can also translate to feelings that they do not deserve to receive help and live a happy, healthy life afterward when others cannot. They may feel unworthy of experiencing relief. Keeping themselves in pain may make them feel like it makes up for the fact that they survived when others did not, and if they were to feel better or feel happy, it would be disrespectful. However, when people are stuck in this guilty feeling, they may not realize that staying in this state of mind can be detrimental to their overall health. Everyone deserves a chance at living a happy, healthy life. Some signs a person may be struggling with survivor’s guilt is if they are having these thoughts or making these comments after a traumatic event:

  • “I don’t deserve help when someone else needs it more than me.”
  • “I keep thinking if only I had…”
  • “I feel like there was more I could have done.” 
  • “I should have…”
  • “Why was I the one that survived?”
  • “I’m so angry at myself for not trying harder.” 
  • “How can I be happy when all those others who died cannot?”
  • “Why should I enjoy life experiences when they no longer can?”


On top of having these thoughts, other symptoms of survivor’s guilt can vary. Each individual may experience them differently and to varying degrees depending on the person and the situation. Some indications you or a loved one may be dealing with survivor’s guilt fall similarly under PTS symptoms :

  • Flashbacks
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • A sense of hopelessness 
  • An intense feeling of fear
  • Physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, and palpitations
  • A sense of unworthiness
  • Suicidal thoughts 

Turning Your Pain into Power 

There is power in reimagining your pain. Showing some compassion to yourself instead of being overly critical of a situation you did not have complete control over can help you look at the traumatic event from a clearer perspective. For every thought or question that begins with why or how, answer it with a more compassionate response. You are not to blame, so you should not have to bear the guilt or shame. Therefore, working toward “I should have done something more” to “I did the best I could” may help provide relief. Other coping tips that can be helpful for a first responder experiencing survivor’s guilt are:

  • Think about how the people who love you feel about your survival.
  • Give yourself time to grieve. 
  • Reconsider who is responsible for the event, if anyone.
  • Talk with trusted family or friends about how you’re feeling.
  • Do something meaningful for someone
  • Take care of yourself
  • Seek professional help

Sometimes showing compassion to others is easier than showing it to oneself. However, this might be what is needed to overcome survivor’s guilt. Surviving a traumatic event can often lead people to question why they were the ones who lived when others did not. It can also lead to thoughts of not feeling worthy of life or happiness. When this is the case, seeking help is critical. First responders are exposed to distressing situations at high proportions in the service of others. When they witness others lose their life while they are spared, it can be challenging to cope with. Showing yourself some compassion and realizing that you are ultimately not responsible for what happened can help you face these feelings. At First Responders Wellness, we share your desire to help others; we are here to help you. If you or a loved one is showing signs of post-traumatic stress or survivor’s guilt, call (888) 743-0490.