Counseling Today, Features

Relieving the heavy burden of survivor guilt

By Lindsey Phillips June 27, 2019

Patience Carter took a bullet in the leg during the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida — the second deadliest mass shooting in the United States — and survived. In a poem she wrote while recovering, Carter captured the devastating effects of survivor guilt: “The guilt of feeling lucky to be alive is heavy. It’s like the weight of the ocean’s walls crushing, uncontrolled by levees.”

Some people are able to grasp and admit that they are suffering from survivor guilt. Others, however, don’t necessarily realize they are wrestling with it, or they struggle to acknowledge carrying a sense of guilt. Luna Medina-Wolf, president of Professionals United 4 Parkland, was part of the mental health response team after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. She says many of the teachers sought help for their trauma after the shooting and, through therapy, also found they were dealing with survivor guilt for not being able to protect all of their students or for living when a child died.

Thus, Medina-Wolf, a licensed mental health counselor and the owner of Helping Moon Counseling, advises other clinicians to pay close attention to subtle comments clients make that may indicate they are struggling with survivor guilt. Rather than directly stating “I shouldn’t have survived,” a client may say, “How is it that my friend died?” This question infers the thought “And I didn’t die,” explains Medina-Wolf, a member of the American Counseling Association. Counselors must sharpen their listening skills and not be afraid to ask questions and dig deeper, she adds.

“Even when people are admitting [their guilt], when the words are coming out, they’re not realizing what it is that they’re admitting,” says Melissa Glaser, an ACA member in private practice in Connecticut. “They don’t know as they’re saying it that this is survivor’s guilt and that they’re stuck in a place that they can’t navigate out of.”

Glaser, a community response and recovery leader, served as director of the Newtown Recovery and Resiliency Team following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. She says counselors can listen for telltale comments that clients are struggling with survivor guilt. For example:

  • “I can’t accept the help because someone else needs it more than me.”
  • “I keep thinking if only I had …”
  • “Other people were so much more courageous while I was just hiding under the desk.”
  • “I became frozen and immobilized, and I still feel like I’m in that place. I’m so angry at myself that I couldn’t move or do something more.”
  • “Why did my child come home while another [parent’s] didn’t?”

Glaser is a consultant, a public speaker on trauma and relevant clinical applications, and a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who specializes in trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She says survivor guilt typically manifests when someone feels a sense of responsibility for a loss or traumatic experience or when someone is grappling with questions of why and how (e.g., Why did this happen? Why did I react that way? How can I enjoy life when others can’t?). This is especially true if they think they could have done something differently to prevent or change the outcome.

“It’s really important for clinicians to help individuals get to a place where they are able to understand that they’ll never have the answers [and] that they can’t stay rooted on the why. … You have to find a way to project those whys into or onto something else,” Glaser says. “Otherwise, it can consume you, and it can become such a part of your identity.”

Glaser often suggests that clients picture themselves throwing their why questions into the air and they don’t come back down. If clients value spirituality, they can imagine that God is going to deal with the questions for a while, she adds.

“Survivor guilt is complicated. … [A] lot of the time, people will not even seek counseling because … they feel they don’t deserve to feel better or they’re not worthy of getting relief,” Medina-Wolf says.

She had a client who was diagnosed with cancer at the same time a friend was diagnosed. When the client survived and the friend didn’t, the client said, “My friend was such a good person. I’m not a good person like her. She volunteered and was kind to everybody. I’m not kind to people. Why did she die?”

Shame is also often intertwined with survivor guilt, adds Courtney Armstrong, an ACA member with a private practice, Real World Therapy, in Tennessee. “When there’s an element of survivor’s guilt on top of [grief], they feel ashamed or guilty for having any joy … because that’s disrespectful to this other person,” she explains. For example, when a child dies, parents may not want to change the child’s room because they feel guilty about moving forward and seemingly “dismissing” their child.

Other clients have told Armstrong, “I can’t be happy if [my loved one] isn’t here. … I feel bad for enjoying my life when they’re not here.”

The ripples and waves of guilt

Survivor guilt can set in immediately, or it can make its presence known months or even years later. This past March, roughly one year after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, two survivors — Sydney Aiello and Calvin Desir — took their own lives. Aiello’s family reported that she suffered from survivor guilt. A few days later, Jeremy Richman, who lost his daughter in the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting and who later served as one of the keynote speakers at an ACA Conference, also died by suicide.

Richman, along with his wife, had created a foundation to prevent violence and build compassion through brain health research. Up until his death, Richman was actively working with Parkland families. Glaser says Richman was the last person most people would have expected to take his own life, but she stresses the importance of being aware that everybody is in a different place. Counselors “have to be well-versed in [the] signs and symptoms [of PTSD and survivor guilt] and never hesitate to reach out, never hesitate to ask questions,” she adds.

John Super, coordinator of the Community Counseling and Research Center and a lecturer of counselor education at the University of Central Florida, has observed that a person’s proximity to the traumatic event may affect how quickly he or she feels survivor guilt. After the Pulse nightclub shooting, Super, along with two other colleagues, helped organize a grassroots collaborative plan to offer supportive counseling services to those affected.

Super compares trauma and the potential for experiencing resulting survivor guilt with throwing a pebble into a lake: “It ripples out. Those [who] are the closest feel it the quickest and the strongest, but that doesn’t mean that people on the outside don’t feel it.”

Working closely with media reporters after the Pulse shooting, Super witnessed how they also experienced a sense of guilt. “Generally, reporters tend to see themselves as hardened — ‘We’ve seen and heard the worst of life so, obviously, we can’t have any guilt or emotional response to this,’” Super says. “And they would be the ones who buried it the deepest.” Some reporters felt guilt almost instantly because they knew they were prying into people’s lives or pushing people to comment who weren’t ready. Super noticed the guilt appeared later for other reporters, such as when they were writing their stories, editing a video or doing a follow-up special.

According to Jeffrey A. Lieberman, who chairs Columbia University’s psychiatry department, adolescents are particularly susceptible to the after-effects of trauma, including survivor guilt, because they are already dealing with massive changes as they move toward adulthood.

One way that counselors can help survivors is to normalize the guilt they may be feeling after a loss or traumatic event. Glaser, author of Healing a Community: Lessons for Recovery After a Large-Scale Trauma and co-author of the chapter “Disaster Recovery in Newtown: The Intermediate Phase” in the fourth edition of ACA’s Disaster Mental Health Counseling: A Guide to Preparing and Responding, points out that part of the recovery process is simply understanding what is involved. After the Sandy Hook shooting, she noticed a sense of relief when she told clients about common physical and emotional responses to trauma. The clients would look at her and say, “Oh my God! That’s why I feel the way I do. That’s why I can’t do that [activity] anymore.”

During the first session, or when clients are otherwise ready to absorb information, Medina-Wolf will show them a “window of tolerance” infographic created by the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (see nicabm.com/tag/window-of-tolerance/). The infographic helps clients understand that what they are experiencing is a normal reaction to a traumatic event.

A person’s window of tolerance is the ideal place for coping with stressors and triggers, Medina-Wolf explains. Hyperarousal (e.g., hypervigilance, anxiety, panic, fear, racing thoughts) sits at one end of the window of tolerance, whereas hypoarousal (e.g., feelings of numbness, emptiness) sits on the other. The infographic illustrates how a traumatic experience can narrow a person’s window of tolerance, causing the person to feel dysregulated. Although most people commonly associate trauma symptoms with hyperarousal, many of the symptoms of survivor guilt — such as feeling helpless, unmotivated, immobilized, numb or disconnected — are components of hypoarousal, Medina-Wolf adds.

Medina-Wolf says she has had clients cry upon viewing the window of tolerance infographic because they realize they are not going crazy. “A lot of what people need in the beginning is just that reassurance that what they’re going through is symptoms of trauma,” she says. 

In addition, recovery from survivor guilt and trauma isn’t a linear process. The guilt and grief of the loss comes in waves, not stages, says Armstrong, author of Rethinking Trauma Treatment: Attachment, Memory Reconsolidation and Resilience and Transforming Traumatic Grief. The reality is that people who are grieving typically move back and forth between loss-orientated waves, in which they feel emotionally and physically drained, and restorative waves, in which they become more task-oriented and don’t dwell on the pain, she explains. Counselors should reassure clients that experiencing grief and guilt in waves is a normal part of the recovery process, Armstrong says. Otherwise, clients who have been feeling better may wonder what is happening when they suddenly find themselves back in a loss-oriented wave.

Of course, as both Armstrong and Medina-Wolf point out, when clients start feeling better and moving through their grief, this can actually cause their survivor guilt to flare more intensely because they don’t think they should be “over it” this quickly or because they feel guilty about being happy again.

Medina-Wolf, who is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), uses recent traumatic episode protocol (R-TEP) for early EMDR intervention with clients. If clients don’t have any underlying issues, this protocol often helps them feel better in as little as three to five sessions lasting 90 minutes apiece. This sometimes prompts them to ask, “How can I feel so good so quickly?” she says.

Of course, some clients may feel that they have their survivor guilt and grief under control, only to turn on the news and be faced with the reality of another traumatic event transpiring. This can throw survivors back into a sense of guilt, distrust and questioning why, Glaser says.

“It isn’t that [trauma] is going to be erased,” she says. “It isn’t that they are going to recover and never be triggered again or never have a day or moment where they’re feeling that extreme sadness, or they’re feeling dysregulated again, or they’re feeling things are foggy. They will experience times like that for the rest of their lives. Hopefully, it’s fewer and further between as they work through this.”

When you can’t talk away the guilt

Glaser is trained in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), but when it comes to collective community trauma, she has found that CBT may not be the most effective approach — or not effective at all — until the client is grounded.

Medina-Wolf agrees: “Communal trauma requires specific brain-based therapeutic techniques to really be able to break some of the negative schemas that were created due to the trauma. Just doing talk therapy would really take a long time until you would be able to heal. … [A] lot of times, it doesn’t take care of it all. You just learn to cope with it, but the damage is done. And if you don’t make sure to really work on the underlying schemas, then [they] may stay with [you] for the rest of your life.”

With survivor guilt, clients experience a disconnect between what they feel and what they know, Medina-Wolf explains. They may realize on a cognitive level there was nothing they could have done to prevent someone’s death, but they still feel differently.

Medina-Wolf uses a metaphor to explain to clients how trauma shapes the way they see the world and themselves in it. If they were to put on red-tinted sunglasses, she tells them, then everything would seem reddish; once they removed the sunglasses, they would realize it was just the glasses making things appear red. Similarly, being in a state of hyperarousal or hypoarousal makes it difficult to think rationally and process one’s thoughts and emotions, which may alter a person’s perceptions, Medina-Wolf says. Thus, bottom-up approaches such as EMDR, neurofeedback and brainspotting, which allow emotions to be processed at an unconscious level, work better to treat survivor guilt and other trauma-related symptoms than does a top-down approach such as CBT, which assumes that changing thoughts will change behavior and feelings, she explains.

With EMDR, the client and counselor first identify the negative self-belief (e.g., “I could have done something more to save the person’s life”). The client then thinks about this distressing feeling while the counselor uses bilateral simulation such as eye movement, tappers or bilateral music. This technique allows clients to open a door between their conscious and subconscious minds so that they are able to figure out what happened and rewire the way they understand it, Medina-Wolf explains. By identifying the negative self-belief and reprocessing and desensitizing what happened, clients can come to terms with what occurred in a more rational way and are more in control of their emotions when they are triggered, she continues.

For example, Medina-Wolf used EMDR R-TEP with a Parkland student who felt guilty for not saving another student’s life. First, they identified the client’s negative self-belief (“I should have done something more to save the student”) and the positive self-belief she wanted to work toward (“I did the best I could”). Medina-Wolf used tappers to administer bilateral simulation, and after three sessions, the client was able to reach that goal. Her thought process was more rational, she believed she had done the best she could, and she no longer felt guilty for the person’s death.

Individuals who experience survivor guilt, complicated grief or extreme trauma reactions may not be able to organize their thoughts to tell counselors what they need, Glaser says. For that reason, she also recommends using mind-body techniques such as meditation and music therapy to regulate and ground clients. This helps them to process their story and recover the vocabulary to talk about their experience. In many instances, clinicians may need to take a layered approach — for example, doing CBT in conjunction with tapping, art therapy or brainspotting.

Glaser often reverts to something rhythmic to help ground clients. For example, she may have them tap the side of a chair or their leg in a rhythmic way or take them on a walk outside (if they feel safe doing that). This simple rhythmic work helps get clients through the initial acute stage so they can begin to hear the counselor and produce the language they need to tell the counselor what they are feeling, Glaser explains.

In session, Medina-Wolf uses aromatherapy, meditation, breathing techniques and a box filled with fidget toys, pencils and squishy toys that clients can grab and play with while they are processing the event. She also encourages clients to supplement therapy with activities such as running, swimming or cycling that encourage bilateral simulation. 

Reimagining guilt

The attachment system often confuses what is imagined and what is real after a traumatic loss or event, points out Armstrong, founder of the Institute for Trauma Informed Hypnotherapy. Thus, she finds the imaginal conversation technique helpful for calming clients’ attachment systems and rewriting the negative thoughts connected to guilt.

With this technique, Armstrong has clients close their eyes and imagine what the person who died would say to them now from a place of enlightened awareness. Would the person want them to be tormented? Would this person tell them they don’t deserve to be alive? Imagining these conversations often helps clients obtain resolution, she says.

Armstrong allows clients to take the lead on these conversations. If they struggle, however, she might say, “I’m imagining they understand that you feel regret and they appreciate how much you care, but they think that being stuck in this depression and guilt isn’t the solution. It isn’t the best way to honor them.”

Armstrong had one client whose mother died by suicide and blamed the client in the suicide note. Because the client had a complicated relationship with her mother, she had a hard time being able to think with a clear, stable mind about her mother. Armstrong told the client she could instead imagine the way she would have liked her mother to be. With clients who are spiritual, counselors can have them imagine a conversation with God and God telling them everything is OK and they are not responsible for what happened, she adds.

Armstrong also has clients write letters to the deceased about their feelings. Then she has clients write an imagined response from the deceased (using their nondominant hand so they are less likely to edit it with their intellectual mind).

Counselors may also need to help clients address another common symptom of survivor guilt: recurring nightmares. Armstrong finds imagery rescripting helpful here. The technique involves rewriting or changing the ending of the nightmare. Clients first describe the nightmare to Armstrong, and then she asks how they would want to change it.

Armstrong had a client whose son died by suicide. The mother felt guilty for not somehow preventing his death — which she feared had caused him to go to hell — and for cremating him when she wasn’t sure he would have wanted that. This guilt culminated in a nightmare in which her son was asking for help as he was being rolled into a furnace, but she was unable to move her body to help him.

Armstrong asked the client, “What do you wish you could do in the dream?” The client responded that she wanted to move and go to her son. Armstrong then asked her to close her eyes and imagine a new ending — one in which her feet could move, she possessed the superpower to leave her body and go to her son, or her son was able to walk to her. The mother closed her eyes and reimagined the nightmare: The son got off the gurney and met her halfway. Then he embraced her and said, “I love you, Mom. I’m sorry I didn’t get to say goodbye. I’m going to be OK.” This revision brought an end to the client’s nightmares.

Counselors should have clients imagine their dreams and the new endings as vividly as possible, Armstrong advises. It typically requires going over this new ending several times in session and having clients imagine it again before bed. “If you just talk about the ending without imagining it as best you can, it won’t work because your emotional brain needs that imaginal experience,” Armstrong explains. The emotional brain learns through experiences, not reasoning, she says, so counselors must have clients create an experience that will allow them to heal.

Turning pain into power

According to Glaser, survivor guilt is rooted in pain. She advises counselors to help clients realize that “guilt in any of its forms is not really productive” — either for clients, for those around them or for those who are gone.

Medina-Wolf says clients often acknowledge being angry, depressed or anxious, even when guilt is the underlying cause of their problems, because it is more difficult to admit feeling guilty. “They feel like if they say it out loud, then maybe they are guilty,” she observes. “The guilt is so deep and they’re so [ashamed] of it because they’re so confident … in that negative distortion that it’s literally killing them from the inside.”

It matters where that guilt is coming from, Medina-Wolf continues. Do they think they didn’t do enough? Do they feel they are a bad person who shouldn’t have survived? Counselors can help clients process exactly what they are experiencing and identify the underlying cause of the guilt, she says.

Often, the guilt is based on a fear of not knowing how to go back into a world they no longer trust, Glaser says. So, instead, they hold on to the guilt and the awful feeling of responsibility. “When we understand that, we can start to make some inroads,” she continues. “We can help the client know where it’s coming from.”

Armstrong points out that pain is also a way for some clients to maintain a bond with their loved one, especially if they experienced the death of a child or someone’s death by suicide. Clients may assume that living without the pain would suggest their loved one’s life wasn’t important, she explains.

She encourages clients to honor their loved ones by letting their importance stay alive in a positive way. Armstrong provides a personal example: Her husband enjoyed watching Atlanta Braves baseball games with his mother, so after she died, he and Armstrong continued to go to games to honor her.

One of Armstrong’s clients had a son who died of an overdose. The client’s happiest memory was of camping in the Grand Canyon with his son, but after his son’s death, the father’s sadness and guilt stripped him of his motivation to hike and camp. Armstrong asked the client to imagine whether his son would want his father to stop hiking to prove his love for him or whether he might prefer that his father do something that served as a positive reminder of their time together. After the father’s perspective was changed through this imagined conversation, he took a small step forward by going hiking. Eventually, the father and his wife planned a trip to the Grand Canyon in their son’s honor and spread some of his ashes there.

Armstrong also recommends using the making living stories technique, in which she invites clients to bring in photos or share stories about the deceased. However, she has found that if she asks clients to tell her a story about the person, their minds often go blank. So, instead, Armstrong will ask about the deceased loved one’s favorite music or food, about a trip the client took with the person, or even what annoyed the client about the person. These silly or trivial questions often end up producing the best stories, she says.

Armstrong also prefaces this technique with the phrase “when you are ready” to ensure that discussing the loved one won’t create additional pain for the client. Counselors can put the invitation out there, and when clients are ready, they can work together to find ways to remember the loved one, she says.

There are times when the attempt to turn pain into something positive can result in others feeling even more guilt. For example, the media often praises survivors or those who have perished in mass shootings for their bravery, such as in the case of Kendrick Castillo, a student who died trying to subdue an active shooter in his school in Colorado this past May. Glaser acknowledges the desire to honor those who perform heroic acts, but she also notes this action can create something of an expectation among adolescents that it is their responsibility to react bravely and save others during a school shooting. It can also exacerbate survivor guilt among those who followed safety protocols and hid behind their desks.

Armstrong is impressed when survivors take a horrible situation and become empowered, such as with the Parkland students’ gun violence advocacy work. However, she also acknowledges that survivors sometimes need to work on healing themselves first.

One of Armstrong’s clients had a daughter who died of a childhood cancer. Soon after her daughter died, the hospital and cancer community approached the mother about having a fun run in honor of her daughter and to raise money to battle the specific type of cancer. Her daughter’s death was too fresh though, and the mother ended up experiencing survivor guilt for not wanting to help create a fun run in her daughter’s honor.

To help the client, Armstrong had the mother imagine what her daughter would say about the situation. Armstrong knew a little bit about the daughter’s personality, so she mentioned the daughter would probably say that even she didn’t have time for a fun run because she was still learning to navigate the afterlife. This helped the client put her guilt into perspective and focus her energy on healing herself.

“You don’t have to be a hero,” Armstrong often reminds clients. “If you decide to do something later, then that’s awesome. But [honoring a person’s life] may just be in little simple ways — I’m just going to take more time to appreciate a sunny day, be kinder to people or not take things for granted.”

Compassion for self, not just others

Often, it’s easier to offer compassion to others rather than to oneself. This may be especially true for counselors. Super, an ACA member who presented “The Shared Trauma of School Shootings and Their Impact on Counseling and Education” at the ACA 2019 Conference in New Orleans, admits he wasn’t good at self-care during the recovery after the Pulse shooting. As one of the coordinators of the grassroots recovery effort in Orlando, Super spent the majority of his time at different counseling centers helping survivors and supervising counselors, and at the end of the day, he often had nothing left in him to tend to his own self-care.

Months later, as he was researching and presenting on his personal experience with this large-scale traumatic event, he realized how it had affected him. “Those thoughts [of ‘it could have been me’] start coming to you, that guilt of ‘this young person … just lost their life and I didn’t.’ I think that is probably a quiet voice that sat in the back of my mind through the entire process.”

Super also witnessed counselors who experienced guilt over not feeling prepared enough or not knowing enough about trauma and the LGBTQ+ community. Other counselors felt guilty that they didn’t help with the recovery efforts because life got in the way or because they simply weren’t ready and needed to take care of themselves first, he adds.

Super would pay close attention to how counselors were responding — for example, if they didn’t want to meet with clients or walked off by themselves — and check in with them. He and the other two organizers weren’t able to be in contact with all of the mental health providers offering assistance, so they also trained counselors to be aware of colleagues’ behavior and check in with them as needed.

People don’t often think about the need for counseling supervision during a collective trauma, Super points out. “But if you have counselors out there, you really need to have supervisors who are debriefing or helping process emotions for those who are providing services in the moment,” he says. He advises counselors and supervisors to make time for self-care. Talking about their feelings with another counselor, a supervisor or someone they trust will help counseling professionals recharge, and it will minimize the residual effects down the road, he notes.

Compassion also helps clients reframe their own guilt. Armstrong stresses the importance of providing psychological first aid — which includes making the person feel supported and safe — immediately after a traumatic experience. Armstrong has had sessions in which a client cried the entire time, and she felt guilty for not doing enough — only to discover that the client thought the session was extremely helpful. Outside of the counseling space, clients typically have to hold it together, she points out, so they often appreciate having a space where they can break down and not worry about others.

Armstrong also worked with a client who dealt with survivor guilt after the 2012 mass shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. The client had been watching a movie next door and, on her way out, almost tripped over a woman who had been shot. She didn’t know how to help the woman, so she simply held her hand and called the woman’s mother. Discussing this with Armstrong, the client said, “All I could think to do for the gunshot victim in the parking lot was to sit there and hold her hand. I am in the health care field, and I felt completely incompetent.”

Armstrong reassured the client that she had done something valuable by offering the shooting victim compassion and psychological first aid, but the client still felt guilty for not doing more. While the client described the event again, Armstrong held her hand, which created an experience to demonstrate the power of compassion. When the client finished her story this time, she noted how the simple act of Armstrong holding her hand had helped her get through the story and made it seem less scary.

A few months later, the client ran into the woman she had helped after the shooting. The woman told her that the kindness of a stranger holding her hand was what replayed in her mind — not the horror of the event.

Armstrong acknowledges that counselors frequently worry about not doing enough, not knowing what to say to clients and not being able to rid them of all their pain. “At the end of the day,” she says, “it’s just us being able to sit with [clients] through all of the confusion and the heartache that heals them.”

For many survivors, the weight of survivor guilt is heavy. But counselors can operate as levees to prevent the weight of this guilt from crushing those who survive.

 

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Read more in an online companion piece to this article, “Doing the groundwork after a large-scale traumatic event

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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