If you live with a serious illness, then you may understand this post. Because this post is about how serious illness can bring monsters that lurks under the bed during a times when other people expect you to be happy. Let me explain that a bit further. Being diagnosed with a serious illness is terrifying. Many of the treatment courses are brutal, or exhausting, or both. But during diagnosis and treatment, most of the people who care about you are frightened too. They (hopefully) make space for your fear. It makes sense to them.
But after treatment, particularly if you have a good prognosis, most of the people in your life begin to celebrate. They begin to relax, and to move on. That can be easier said than done when it’s your body that has been under siege. Back in April, I wrote about the challenges of recurrence fears. Today, I’m going to explore another tough issue that you may face–even if your own medical news is pretty good–survivor’s guilt. Guilt is not an unusual feeling for those with serious illness. In fact, in this beautiful piece by Suleika Joauad, the author does a great job of exploring the “constant companionship” of guilt during cancer.
Survivor’s guilt is a special category of guilt. It is particularly insidious because it takes something that should be a joyful subject–your continued survival–and adds a layer of oozy, uncomfortable self-doubt. Some of the ways that survivor’s guilt can sneak in look like this:
- Why did my cancer go into remission, but my mother, neighbor, co-worker, support group friend died? Why was I spared when s/he wasn’t?
- Why did I escape serious complications when I took a mental vacation from managing my diabetes, when others have died or had permanent consequences?
- Why was I finally able to conceive when I know so many other couples who are still struggling with infertility?
- Why have I been able to remain comparatively mobile with my MS when others are completely invalid?
Ultimately, the root of survivor’s guilt boils down to this: so much of what happens within our bodies is a mystery. Making healthy lifestyle choices isn’t a guarantee of good health. Making unhealthy lifestyle choices isn’t a guarantee of illness. There are a lot of genetic and environmental lottery factors at play that have nothing to do with how deserving or good or hard-working we are. The things we don’t know mean that many wonderful people die. It is heart-breaking. But it is not your fault. Here are a few suggestions for coping when you feel overwhelmed by guilt:
- Honor memories. If your survivor’s guilt is about a specific person, try to remember the spirit of that person. Spend some time with their family. Do their favorite activities. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that this would feel like a better memorial to them than beating yourself up for being healthy.
- Make space for sadness. Sometimes survivor’s guilt is a mask for all of the grief and anxiety that we carry after our own diagnosis and after the loss of a dear friend. Taking some time to journal or discuss your feelings in a supportive setting can help you sift through the layers of feelings.
- Remember that this is not under your control. You couldn’t avoid getting sick, and it is not through a design or an intent on your part that you have survived when others did not. That is part of the unpredictable nature of life–we just don’t get guarantees. This may seem obvious, but it’s important to remember.
- Connect and name the experience. Guilt flourishes in the dark spaces in our hearts & minds. When we connect with one another and talk about the experience, we learn that it’s universal. And sometimes, being able to extend compassion to others helps us extend compassion to ourselves.
Do you have other suggestions for coping with survivor’s guilt? I’d love to hear them.
Image Credit: Survivor Guilt by _william via Flickr