Survivor’s guilt is a difficult emotion to navigate through, especially for first responders, because they’re more inclined to experience a heightened amount of traumatic events compared to the general population. 

Feeling lucky to be alive is an emotion many of us might not associate with guilt. Some may not even realize they are experiencing it, or they struggle to recognize that the weight they are carrying alongside their grief is actually a sense of guilt. 

This feeling can manifest itself after a person experiences a loss or a traumatic event that develops post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI). This person may feel a sense of responsibility and are grappling with questions like, “Why did this happen? What could I have done differently? Why did I survive when others did not?” These inner questions can weigh incredibly heavy on a person who feels like they could’ve done something different to change or prevent the outcome.

When there’s an emergency, first responders are the ones heading to the action, actively trying to prevent the loss of life or a traumatic outcome. As you know, 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 they 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 fire; these are just a couple of many examples of survivors guilt first responders are susceptible to. 

“The guilt of being alive after someone has died can create a sense of failure and loss of purpose, or drive someone to use substances as a means of coping. Learning to deal with survivor guilt and shame in a healthy way can help bring some healing and positive feelings to a first responder’s work and personal life.”

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With this challenging emotion ever so present in the lives of all first responders, it’s essential to understand the signs, symptoms and know how to turn your pain into power. 

Survivor’s guilt is complicated

Sometimes the mess of emotions that ensues after surviving a traumatic experience can be difficult to untangle and manage. Navigating through the various stages of grief while also struggling with survivor’s guilt can bring on complex emotions that feel overwhelming. Identifying what you’re 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 a person has identified what they’re 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; this person may feel unworthy of experiencing relief. Keeping themselves in pain may make them feel like it makes up for the fact they survived when others did not, as if they owe the world something, and if they were to feel happy, it would be disrespectful. 

However, when people are stuck in this feeling of guilt, they may not realize that staying in this state of mind can be detrimental to their overall health. Everyone deserves an opportunity to live a happy, healthy life. 

Be aware of the signs

Some signs that indicate a person may be struggling with survivor’s guilt is if they’re expressing any of the following 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 can’t?”

Symptoms first responders experience 

On top of having these thoughts, symptoms of survivor’s guilt can vary. Each individual may experience them differently and to varying degrees depending on the person and situation. Some indications a person may be experiencing survivor’s guilt fall similarly under many PTSI symptoms:

  • Flashbacks
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • A sense of hopelessness 
  • An intense feeling of fear
  • Stomachaches, headaches, and palpitations
  • A sense of unworthiness
  • Suicidal thoughts 

Let’s turn your pain into power 

There’s 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’re not to blame, so you should not have to bear the guilt or shame. Therefore, saying “I should have done something more” and flipping it to “I did the best I could” will provide some relief. 

Other coping tips that can be helpful to first responders include:

  • Think how the people who love you feel about your survival
  • Give yourself time to grieve
  • Talk with trusted loved ones about your feelings
  • Do something meaningful for someone
  • Practice self-care
  • Seek professional help

At First Responder Wellness, we share your desire to help others; we’re here to help you. If you or a loved one is showing signs of post-traumatic stress or survivor’s guilt, reach out to us at (888) 743-0490.