Survivors of terrible incidents need to be in our thoughts as much as victims

Several weeks back, I came across a highly emotive article which centred around the suicide of a father of one of the victims of the Sandyhook school shooting in Connecticut, writes Mansfield counsellor Jason Hanson.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the atrocity, a 20-year-old male opened fire in the elementary school claiming the lives of 20 children and six adults in total, in December of 2012.

Naturally our attention gravitates towards the victims and their families and we begin a process of grief and mourning.

For some however, this process can be more profound and much longer in duration.

Jason Hanson, Mansfield counsellor

It is not entirely uncommon to see this grief accompanied by what is known as survivor’s guilt (or sometimes survivor’s syndrome).

What we mean by this is, effectively individuals feel guilty for surviving a particular event.

You sometimes see this in people who have fought and beaten conditions such as cancer, whilst others around them may have lost their fight.

Also, it may manifest itself in people who have survived acts of violence, or road accidents for example.

The condition is very real and whilst historically it had a label of its own in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is now more closely associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and sits under that umbrella.

It is common to find serving troops briefed on this before deployment, which almost pre-empts what they may be about to experience.

Earlier this year, two survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting (which had claimed the lives of 17 people) took their own lives.

It seems difficult to conceptualise that individuals who had survived something (perhaps against the odds), would later take their own lives, but that goes to highlight the extent to which their emotional wellbeing had been affected.

Often the event is not the climax, but the beginning.

With the condition now linked to PTSD, imagine continuously reliving that

day, where it was potentially a lottery determining who lived and who did not.

That concept in itself is very difficult to grasp for those of us who are removed from the situation, so imagine how it would feel for somebody emotionally invested.

When exploring survivor’s guilt the key question you are faced with isn’t ‘why me’, it’s ‘why not me?’.

It’s ok to feel like this and these are very natural responses to what may be a life changing event.

It’s ok to ask these questions, but keep in mind you don’t have to seek the answers yourself.

You can explore them with others whether that be a family member, friend or even a professional therapist.

Grief can co-exist with taking care of your own mental health, the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Some people find it useful to channel the guilt and use it constructively to help others who may have shared similar experiences.

Whatever it is you choose to do, there is a lot of professional help available and it isn’t wrong to feel the way you do.