Survivor’s Guilt: What Happens To The Ones Left Behind?

We often talk about how the loss of a loved one or a traumatic experience can alter your life. But, we don’t say enough about this overwhelming guilt that you may feel for being the one left behind. 

Aishah*, 25, joined the EndSARS protests in Lagos, Nigeria. On the 20th of October, 2020, she was amongst the crowd stationed at the Lekki Toll gate. A little before noon, the governor of Lagos state announced a nationwide curfew to begin at 4 pm on the same day. By 4.30 pm, Aishah* and other peaceful protesters stayed unwavering at the Lekki Toll gate, exercising their fundamental human rights. They sang the national anthem, danced, waved the national flag. A few minutes before 7, the area turned pitch-black because the lighting was cut off on government orders. Shortly after, The Nigerian Army arrived at the scene and opened fire on the crowd, a continuous shooting that wore on into the night. By morning, some people were declared dead and a lot of bodies missing. Aishah* survived with only a few bruises. And now, exactly one week since the Lekki Massacre, her life is changed forever.

There is trauma, PTSD, anxiety, pain, and this sickening guilt washing over her every time she attempts to go about the routines of her regular life.

What is Survivor’s guilt? 

Simply put, Survivor’s guilt is a psychological condition where a person feels guilty for surviving a tragic event when others did not. This results in a heaviness that often translates to depression and anxiety. You may wonder, why feel guilty when you should feel lucky to be alive?

For life-changing experiences like the EndSARS protests, the effects have been enormous. Survivor’s guilt is felt even when you did not lose a loved one at the event that triggered it. It is also possible to feel it when you were not there when it happened.

The Signs 

Unlike most mental conditions, Survivor’s guilt does not come in stages, but in waves. It may occur immediately after the event or much later, but in both instances, the grief and guilt build up over time. Asides feeling guilty for surviving, you may also feel a sense of responsibility. What did you do during the traumatic event? What more could you have done during the traumatic event? Common signs of Survivor’s guilt include:

  • Flashbacks of the event
  • Irritability
  • General disinterest and Lack of motivation
  • Insomnia
  • Constant Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Fear and Anxiety
  • Social Isolation
  • Suicidal thoughts

Most people likely to suffer Survivor’s guilt include Survivors of a terminal illness, First Responders, witnesses to a tragic incident, people who have lost someone to suicide, and so on. You also have a high risk of Survivor’s guilt if you have a history of abuse (physical/emotional/sexual) or already suffer depression.

How do you cope?

Letting go of the guilt and grief that comes with trauma is a process. Here are some helpful steps you can take to cope:

  1. Time-out: Pay attention to your feelings and allow yourself time to process them. From fear to sadness, you will feel emotions in waves. Recognize when its time to see a professional.
  2. Self-care: This is one of the best times to create a routine for taking care of yourself. Your mind, body, and soul need refreshing. Use this guide to understand how best to begin self-care. Ensure that you’re sleeping well, eating healthy, and exercising, while you’re at it.
  3. Talk to someone: Who is that one person that never makes you feel alone? Reach out to a person you trust and unburden yourself. You do not have to go through this by yourself.
  4. Practice mindfulness: This involves taking some time to notice your surroundings. This is especially helpful for when you have intense flashbacks and panic attacks. Focus on your breathing, then sounds around you. You can also feel fabrics nearby to keep you grounded in the present.
  5. Do some good for others: You will cope better with Survivor’s guilt if you dedicate some time to helping others. Do you have a skill you’d like to teach? Volunteer with an organisation? Or, simply gift someone you love.

The first step to dealing with survivor’s guilt is by acknowledging it. This will help you better navigate your emotions, cope, and hopefully, heal. Remember that therapy is always an option. If it feels like it’s not getting better, seek professional help.


*Not real name

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