Michelle Elman on how to relieve the unfair burden of ‘survivor’s guilt’

Going through a traumatic illness or experience is unimaginably difficult – so making it through the other side is something to celebrate, right? But what people often struggle to vocalise is the confusing mixture of feelings that accompany this, and the burden of guilt that can, unfairly, weigh heavy on you.

I remember the first time I heard the words ‘survivor’s guilt’. It caught my attention because it was finally a phrase that I could put to how I had been feeling for the last decade of my life.

For a little context, I’ve had 15 surgeries and, in many ways, shouldn’t have survived. If I had been born a few years earlier, or in a family with less financial privilege to afford the medical care I did, I would not be alive, and I have been acutely aware of that fact since the age of 11.

The problem is, at 11, it is a very adult problem to have when you are still very much a child, and with the limitations of the vocabulary of a child, and the confusion that comes with not being able to articulate how you feel. At 11 years old, I had been in the ICU for three months, and because the ICU was where the most ill children were in the hospital, I witnessed more deaths of children from six months to 15 years old than one should ever experience, and As each death occurred, it often made me wonder why I was still here. Why was I surviving? What was so special about me?

The only way I found to console myself at that age was to tell myself that I would do my best to compensate for those lives by spending my own trying to help as many people as humanly possible… I hoped that it would make up for it, and decided to never vocalise this guilt.

As much as it’s called survivor’s guilt, there are many other emotions encompassed in it, and the other main one was shame. Shame breeds silence, and so this became my deep dark secret, and ultimately led to me working so hard to overcompensate for all the lives lost.

I was often told in hospital ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ and this made the guilt so much worse. It forces me to try to make meaning out of something that has no meaning and doesn’t make sense. When someone tells you that everything happens for a reason, and you can’t find one, you begin to believe the reason is you, and that’s where the blame comes, along with the shame. Survivor’s guilt is nonsensical. Logically and rationally, you can understand you did not do anything to cause their death, but emotionally, it feels unjust and unfair.

What I wish someone had told me back then was that it was not my responsibility. It was not my fault that others had died and I had lived and, most of all, no one should have to earn their right to life. The fact is there is nothing special about me. There isn’t a reason why I survived and others did not, and the most peace I have found is the understanding that sometimes shitty things happen, and not everything has a reason or a purpose.

I only began processing all of this while writing my first book. Am I Ugly?, and discussing it in depth meant I finally put words to how I’d felt for decades, and those words liberated me. When you stay silent, the guilt (and shame) stays stuck within you. Being able to talk about it also gave me permission to live my life for me again. It’s a big burden when you are living your life for more than 50 others, and hoping your life has sufficient impact to mean enough.

Realising that wasn’t my burden to bear was life-changing though, so if you are going through survivor’s guilt, I want you to know you aren’t alone, and that this is not your burden to bear. One of the best things that helped me let go of survivor’s guilt is understanding boundaries, and realizing that I cannot carry someone else’s emotions for them. Of course, I will always remember those moments in the ICU, but if I live with them in the forefront of my mind everyday, I am limiting myself from enjoying my life fully and, ultimately, that would be the greatest disservice to the people who passed.

I didn’t know the names of most of the babies who passed in that ICU, I didn’t even know all their faces, but what I do know is that if you are still alive and breathing, your only job and responsibility is to make the most of your life, for you.

The best way you can let go of the survivor’s guilt is to shift the guilt into gratitude. I will forever be grateful that I survived, but my survival didn’t depend on their death, and they didn’t die so I could survive. You can only be responsible for your own choices, actions, and you do not have that power and control over whether another lives or dies, because frankly, believing my life impacted their loss of life, was me thinking too highly of myself!

Love Michelle x


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