When “Luck” Doesn’t Seem So “Lucky” After All: Coping with Survivors’ Guilt

Jan 19, 2011 by

When “Luck” Doesn’t Seem So “Lucky” After All: Coping with Survivors’ Guilt

Survivors’ guilt, at its most basic, is about coming to terms with the very arbitrary nature of luck/fortune/chance. Some tragedies in life pass by us; others touch us directly. Woody Allen had an old joke, when someone asked him if he’d like to achieve immortality through his work. No, he said, “I’d like to achieve immortality through not dying…” Cynics might claim that those who die have it easy — at least they’re not left to deal with the wreckage. For those left behind, when a tragedy occurs, the grieving can seem harder than the going. And the incessant questioning, “why ME?!” Sometimes luck doesn’t feel so lucky, when it’s someone you deeply cared about who died, and you’re left behind to carry on. Go ahead and excuse the surface-y nature of this post, please. There’s obviously a lot more to survivors’ guilt and how it makes people feel, as well as how to overcome, than this little cheese-whiz post is going to convey. It’s not meant to be a quick fix. However, in the spirit that sometimes it’s worthwhile to challenge your unconscious thoughts about a situation that plagues you, here are some items I ran across a few years ago on the Web. Attribution unknown, sorry to say.

“Survivor’s Guilt – Opportunities to Challenge Your Thinking”

  • Thank goodness — you survived!
  • More people than you know are happy that you survived.
  • Over the course of a lifetime, we are saddened by so many deaths.
  • Even if the rest of your life seems insignificant to you, we are relieved that you are alive.
  • Know that there is no shame in surviving.
  • It is good to survive.
  • It is okay to delight in being alive.
  • Feel free to reassess your life.
  • Reassess what is valuable to you.
  • Make the best of your life.
  • Making the best of your life can be a tribute to your survival and to those who died.
  • Take the opportunity to re-evaluate the meaning of your life.
  • Is your life all it can be? If not, why not?
  • What is or can be your purpose? your talent? your benefit to life?
  • Bloom where you’re planted.
  • Process the traumatic experience and its associated symptoms with the appropriate assistance.
  • Put guilt to good use.
  • If it is in your nature to do so, cherish life.
  • Treasure being alive.
  • Whether you survived due to fate, a purpose, luck, chance, or you just did, it’s a truth that long life and kindness are not guaranteed to any of us.
  • Each day and each act of kindness can be treasured as gifts.
  • Treasure the best of each day.
  • Be aware of your physical mortality in good and positive ways.
  • Understand that appreciating or cherishing life may be easier after recovery from trauma.
  • Recognize the reawakening of old issues.
  • Survival may have triggered old feelings of worthlessness or unworthiness.
  • Surviving may have amplified old messages that you received about not being worthy, about being a nuisance, about not measuring up, and/or about not counting.
  • If guilt persists or disrupts life, seek appropriate therapeutic assistance.

One instructive book about the general topic of how to process grief is, Living with Grief after Sudden Loss: Suicide, Homicide, Accident, Heart Attack, Stroke edited by Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D. Although the subtitle there shows you there’s not just one type of death discussed, it fails to mention that there’s also a chapter in the book called “Complicated Grief in the Military.” The book was published in 1996, so it doesn’t take this war into account, but the principles are general and reasonable. In the conclusion to the book, Kenneth Doka, Ph.D. lists five critical points about surviving grief. They are:

  1. that grief is a highly individual[ized] reaction,
  2. that different types of sudden loss create unique issues for survivors
  3. that survivors are often coping simultaneously with both grief and loss of their normal world
  4. that survivors of sudden loss need both short-term and long-term intervention
  5. and that caregivers at all levels may be affected by traumatic loss, so self-care is critical.

He notes, finally, that “communities need to be proactive.” That’s what we’re attempting to do, here.


  1. Margaret Motheral via Facebook

    I gotcha.

  2. Jeni Olivera via Facebook

    I’m going to use this at grief group … but I couldn’t get it to print … the little wheel just kept going round and round … for about 3 minutes … even refresh and try again x2 didn’t fix … oh well … printed it from website … good article!!

  3. My daughter goes to Skidmore College, which has a fairly large Jewish population. Many of her classmates had relatives that survived WW2, and it’s really eery how survivor guilt still affects her classmates today.