Survivor’s Syndrome: When Guilt For Living Eats You Up

Last updated by Katie M.

When a friend of mine died in an accident, I was devastated. I felt immense grief, but I wasn’t there to see the drama of her death. Some people unfortunately witness the death of a loved one… This makes them feel a huge weight on them, as they feel guilty for being alive when the other person wasn’t as fortunate. This feeling, called “survivor’s syndrome” (or Lazarus syndrome) isn’t trivial and can have many consequences. How can you overcome it? All will be explained.

Survivor’s Syndrome: When Guilt For Living Eats You Up

What is survivor’s syndrome?

Survivor’s syndrome is the guilt of being alive when a traumatic situation has occurred, resulting in the death of a person. We feel as if we’ve done wrong or acted badly because we’re alive. Two feelings arise from this event 😥:

👉 We feel that we don’t deserve to live, we should have died instead of the other person.

👉 We tend to believe that we could have prevented the death of the other person…

A tragedy that leaves its mark

This syndrome is particularly proven in cases where we’ve witnessed death before our very eyes. For example, a road accident: a crash occurs, the person next to us dies, but not us. It’s a tragedy that can happen in everyone’s everyday life, but as the psychopathology doctor Hélène Romano explains, it can also cover more extensive human dramas such as terrorist attacks. Incidentally, the first studies on this subject were carried out on victims of the Holocaust or even the survivors of the Rwandan genocide…

🌪️ In the face of trauma, we feel negative emotions such as guilt, shame, sadness, anxiety or even hypervigilance. Experiencing survivor’s syndrome is therefore not without its consequences on our mental health.

The consequences of survivor’s guilt

When you experience an emotional shock, you go through a psychological metamorphosis. I experienced this myself when my mother died, I changed. However, as I didn’t witness the drama, I didn’t have flashbacks to the event. People with Lazarus syndrome relive the scene with traumatic mental images. Emotions also resurface, such as fear and confusion. You end up feeling disconnected from others who haven’t experienced the drama.

Isolation and risk-taking

It’s almost impossible to feel happy to be alive in these conditions, especially knowing that the deceased didn’t have the same fate as we did. The guilt will eat away at us and create other disorders with depressive symptoms.

The best case scenario is that the psychologically injured person will manage to overcome their guilt, but this rarely happens without help. The weight of the shameful emotions will be so heavy to bear that they may develop risky behaviors. This is a way of distancing yourself from reality, for example through the use of alcohol or drugs. We may also shut ourselves off and isolate ourselves completely, because we’re so afraid of what others will think.

Some victims experience suicidal thoughts that push them to commit the irrevocable, like the young Sydney Aiello. She was a survivor of the Parkland shooting in Florida who took her own life 1 year after the massacre…

How to overcome this syndrome?

Everyone experiences bereavement in different ways, with emotions that are more or less difficult to live with 😔. When we’re the victim of a tragedy, the way we deal with it will depend on our resilience and our personal experience.

Survivor’s syndrome is a complex mix of different factors specific to the person experiencing it. The only way to get through the stages of grief and to overcome the guilt is through therapy. Only professional support will help to get through the trauma and move towards acceptance. 👉 The choice of therapy is important in this case, you should turn to EMDR which is suitable for traumas and post-traumatic stress.

How to help someone going through this ordeal?

Seeing a loved one carry the guilt of a death is never easy, but you need to be patient, tactful and gentle to help them as best as possible. You have to be present and listen in order to be empathetic to their distress. This involves small gestures of support, such as accompanying them to their first psychotherapy session. You need to help them through the pain while not allowing them to become isolated or take risks 😟. You need to accept that the person who has experienced this tragedy will never be the same as before, so you need to be able to adapt to accompany them as best as you can.

Editor’s note: A major trauma that requires treatment

Survivor’s syndrome is the result of a major trauma. It’s imperative to have psychological treatment to overcome this kind of traumatic event. If you or a loved one is affected by this, don’t wait to make an appointment with a psychologist.

🤗 Understanding yourself, accepting yourself, being happy... It’s here and now!

Article presented by Katie M.

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