A young patient told me she was having a difficult time celebrating a recent promotion when her closest colleague was let go that very same day. Even worse, a number of her good friends were still unemployed and had no place to live. "So many of them are by-products of the recession," she said. "I'm not sure how I escaped?"
She told me she was so grateful to have a job -- working overtime and weekends -- hoping to afford her own place. Now with a raise, the move was possible. Instead she felt depressed and disinterested. We talked a little about survivor's guilt and began discussing how to move on.
Meanwhile, my thoughts turned to a much younger girl enduring a more dramatic survival in Newtown. I was thinking about the 6-year-old who reportedly walked out unharmed from the Sandy Hook classroom where all her fellow kindergartners were brutally killed. According to the local reverend who first saw her, she was covered in blood as she ran to her mom and said, "I'm okay, but all my friends are dead." One can only imagine the emotional roller coaster that she -- and some of the injured survivors -- will face as they heal both physically and psychologically.
I am the daughter of Holocaust survivors, so I have some familiarity with these complicated emotions -- one generation removed -- but palpable even now. To this day, my parents' experiences shape my psyche, how I think and feel about my everyday life. How do people work through survivor guilt?
For years, following my parents' arrival in America, they focused on putting their lives together. "Put one foot in front of the other," they remember being told in the deportation camp where they met. My dad, a doctor in Poland, first learned to speak English, enough to get licensed to practice in America. My mother did factory work to help scrape by and set up my father's office while raising three children. The five of us lived in two rooms that served as both home and a place for my dad to see patients. Having lost everything and everyone -- and desperate to forget -- they were intent on building something from nothing and starting over.
On the surface, they seemed to thrive, so grateful to be alive. But internally, there was always a deep sense of sadness and guilt. They had escaped, but on some level they couldn't. Memories receded, but they were in constant mourning -- not only for their own families, but the 6 million Jews who were killed during the war. There was always "before the war" and "after the war" -- a delineation that defined their lives. While they spared us the details of their personal stories, my brother, sister and I knew they had witnessed the unspeakable and endured the unimaginable. We knew they wanted to leave it behind, but they needed our help to do that.
How did they cope? They struggled to make their lives -- and their children's -- meaningful. It was their modus operandi. They were going to prove one way or another that their survival had been worthwhile. My siblings and I did what we could to contribute -- to replace painful memories with hope for a better future. My sister brought home academic achievements. My brother, athletic ones. I became a professional ballet dancer to infuse beauty into their ugly pasts. We all went on to become psychotherapists, not only to help others, but to help them as well. If we could make other lives meaningful, we would carry on their mission.
But, while they were alive, their pleasures came mixed with pain. Joy was often followed by tears and sorrow. They just couldn't forget. There was an ongoing awareness of those who hadn't survived, who would never know joy, hope, the ups and downs of normal life. It was the burden they bared throughout their lives and one that we, in the next generation, felt as well.
Sadly, survivors of tragedies struggle in ways that most people find hard to understand. The emotions are complex and confusing. The feelings depend upon on the psychological makeup of the individual involved and vary depending on the nature of the traumatic event. Reactions to a natural disaster, an act of violence, mortal combat, bankruptcy or the loss of loved ones can be pretty different. But almost always there is the before and after, the desire to forget and a need to remember -- common experiences that follow throughout life.
Guilt results from the perception that having survived is simply unfair and wrong, no matter how illogical these feelings may be. The experience may be unconscious but often times is quite overt. Symptoms can be severe, more like my parents' were, or mild like the ones my patient felt after her promotion. Without help, the guilt can fester, keeping survivors from letting go and moving on.
The little girl who miraculously escaped the Sandy Hook carnage will hopefully return to a life of play and music and friends. The indelible images no doubt will live somewhere in her mind, even as she grows into an adult woman. She and all who were touched by this tragedy will find a way to internalize an experience that will have forever changed the way they view life. As the acute memories recede, with help and support hopefully the guilt will too.
Do you have a challenging or traumatic experience that you survived? Tell us your story.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.