I have had this on my blog topic list for months…and here I am at almost 3 in the morning finally feeling ready to write this. It will be short and sweet as it is a topic that has been brought up by a handful of helpful individuals in the AYA community, but I felt the desire to write about it as well.
The definition of survivor guilt is pretty self-explanatory. When I looked up some resources online it said, “On a basic level, survivor guilt is exactly what it sounds like: a sense of deep guilt that comes when one survives something.”
I found that like PTSD, people associate survivor guilt with war, natural disasters, abuse, etc. But it is very important to note that just like PTSD, it affects such a wide range of traumatic events. Survivor guilt is now a symptom of PTSD, however, you can feel survivor guilt without having PTSD. For me, having had cancer triggered PTSD and survivor guilt.
Cancer has been a part of my life for nine years now, and I have lost a handful of people to this disease since then…a few handfuls actually. Being treated in a pediatric oncology setting, it was especially difficult if a child passed away. My heart would ache and I would always ask why them? Why someone so young and so innocent? And I would wonder why I survived and those beautiful little souls did not.
Survivor guilt hit me very hard almost 3 years ago when I lost my best friend Michelle in March 2015. She was only 22 years old. She experienced so many side effects after her cancer that eventually took her life, but through it all she was so hard-working and had a plan. She was one of my closest friends and we actually met through our oncology clinic when we found out we both went to Saint Xavier. We instantly hit it off when I met her my sophomore year/her freshman year, and she was my roommate my senior year/her junior year. When I lost her, I was completely broken inside. It was especially heart-wrenching because she just got home because she was doing better and making progress. Her death completely blind-sided our friends and I. Besides “why,” I also started saying “should’ve, would’ve, and could’ve.” I should’ve talked to her more towards the end, I could’ve visited her more, etc. There was never-ending thoughts about the past that I could not change. And recently, the AYA cancer community has lost a handful of well-known fighters in less than a year, including my dear friend Melissa. It felt as if I could not fully grieve one loss before another one happened. I think about all these beautiful individuals who were so driven, intelligent, and had big plans. Then I think about myself, and right now I am feeling lost and trying to discover my purpose, and I ask again…why did I survive and they did not?
Michelle Majewski, 11/2/92-3/8/15
Melissa Tang, 4/20/90-12/20/17
This is a part of the grieving process and PLEASE know that it is okay to have those “why” and guilty feelings. Survivor guilt is a healthy form of grief and it comes in many ways and we all process it differently. Another resource states that, “What makes survivor guilt especially complex is that the experience varies dramatically for each individual. Whether a person experiences survivor guilt, its duration and its intensity all vary from person to person.” I think that is a very simple, yet powerful statement.
There is no universal way to grieve. For me, survivor guilt was mild throughout the years but really came into the picture when I lost Michelle, became sick again for the second time, and met many other young adults with cancer. I am currently still processing this guilt. Although I will never understand why these people were taken so soon and I survived two cancers, I do understand cancer is an ugly thing and I will try my best to live my best life for myself and those individuals.
Again, I cannot stress this enough. It is OKAY if you are feeling this way and grieving. Be open to seeking support. Know that I am here as well to support you. I would be happy to listen 🙂 my contact info is on the home page!
Embrace your survivorship ❤ For more info and tips on working through this process, I found this website very helpful – Understanding Survivor Guilt