Friday, April 12, 2024

The burden of survivors’ guilt

“Why him and not me?” These are words constantly echoed by Thapelo Molwane who survived a ghastly car accident two years back that claimed the life of his brother. The guilt of feeling lucky to be alive is heavy.

Survivor guilt is a particular type of guilt that may develop in people who have survived a life-threatening situation. Individuals who believe it is unfair that they survived when others died and/or believe they did not do enough to save the lives of others may come to experience survivor guilt after trauma or a catastrophic event. 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. Coping with survivor’s guilt is a process. There are days that you feel completely free from intrusive, negative thoughts and other days it can feel all-consuming with no relief in sight. The intensity and duration of survivor guilt can vary from person to person, and so does its manifestation. There are instances when our actions may have contributed to the death of someone but in many cases the guilt is irrational. For example, if you were a passenger in the car and the driver died because of the negligence of another driver, there’s nothing you could have done to prevent the accident or change the outcome. However, because feeling helpless is incredibly hard, people would rather blame themselves than accept that they can’t control everything. Most people focus on healing their physical injuries and getting compensated for their lost wages after a car accident. Moreover, while that is the normal course of events, they are left plagued by survivor’s guilt, which most don’t realize they have.

What was meant to be a quick trip to the shops would forever be a haunting memory for 27-year-old Alpha Direct Insurance consultant Thapelo Molwane. “I, a friend of mine and my brother went to get a few items for the house one Sunday evening two years ago. It was meant to be a quick in and out mission. After shopping, we piled into my car for the drive home, I was behind the wheel, my brother on the passenger seat and my friend at the back. As we approached our neighborhood, we turned left at a curve and unbeknownst to us, a speeding car with no lights approached in the dark. It happened so fast, one thing we were driving the next we are being flung up in the air. The speeding car hit us with so much impact the car spun 3 times, hit a curb then stopped. Our car was hit on the passenger’s side, my brother’s side. He died on the spot.” Shortly after the accident Thapelo plunged into survivor’s guilt. He went through a long spell of disbelief, pain, anger, confusion, and a ton of unanswered questions. “I have ‘why’d’ myself to death: Why couldn’t we have reached the curve a second earlier, why did we need groceries on Sunday, why didn’t we go in the daylight? Why didn’t my brother stay behind?  but mostly, it’s just, ‘Why him and not me? Intrusive thoughts and a lot of nightmares kept him awake most nights. “The accident played like a movie in my head when I was quiet or alone, making me restless for hours at night. The events would play like a loop continuously and were unbearable.

Survivor’s guilt is also painfully evident now – during COVID-19. Guilt and shame are two prevailing emotions surrounding COVID-19. This guilt stems in part from the fact that anyone could be a potential carrier of the virus – so anyone, then, could unwittingly pass it to another person. Guilt can also arise when a person looks at the national and global death tolls and wonders how they were spared. It also rears its head when family members can’t visit loved ones undergoing treatment at a hospital, or when someone with COVID-19 survives and an infected stranger who they were in hospital with dies. A lot of people who have been affected and learned they unknowingly infected relatives who died of the disease blame themselves immensely. This sets off more guilt and a feeling that they are responsible for the death. How do we cope with the guilt when we know we passed the virus on to a family member?

Clinical psychologist, Dr Sophie Moagi says survivor’s guilt is more common than we think especially now during the pandemic. “Survivor’s guilt is this emotional distress that can happen when we go through something difficult or traumatic, and we survive it, and maybe even leave that event unscathed. The pandemic is a collective trauma we are all experiencing. Amidst the chaos, learning about someone’s death due to COVID-19 especially someone you know can result in you feeling like you have or are doing something wrong by merely surviving. Not only that but it often leads to those who have contracted the illness and survived to wonder why did I make it when others didn’t. In the case of COVID-19, seeing loved ones in agony while you are asymptomatic or have overcome symptoms can bring about an immense amount of guilt, helplessness and remorse. Survivor’s guilt can also be seen in those who are experiencing a more ideal outcome from the pandemic such as less loss, a less dented economic status or even access to the vaccine. COVID survivor’s guilt is a huge emotional burden to carry during an already taxing time in history. But that’s just the beginning, it can also cause insomnia, make it difficult to function in day-to-day life and even isolate you from loved ones.”

Senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana, Dr Poloko Ntshwarang says, Guilt is subtle yet destructive, especially when dealing with the death of a loved one. It’s often a strong emotion that we burden ourselves with rather than something that others make us feel. Death overwhelms us. We feel like we’re losing control and are helpless. In an attempt to make sense of it and/or deny this reality or minimize its impact, we tend to revisit events surrounding the death. We begin to imagine how things could have been different or what we think we should have done to change the outcome. We begin to feel responsible as if the death was our fault because we missed something, we didn’t do enough or we took a wrong decision. With self-blame, guilt gradually creeps in, when people feel this profound sense of guilt it often goes with other things, like feeling numb, not having an interest in life, social withdrawal, questioning their worth and value, and feeling like they did something wrong.”


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