Survivor Guilt After a Large-Scale Tragedy: Relating to the Experience

You’d think that after a large-scale tragedy, such as a bombing or shooting, the survivors would be relieved to still be alive.

Yet, the tragic reality is that many of these people suffer from survivor’s guilt.

The reasons why this happens can be difficult to understand, especially if you have never been through such an experience. Yet, for these survivors, bearing an overwhelming sense of guilt is a reality.

If you want to be able to relate to someone who’s gone through a traumatic experience, consider why the reasons for survivor’s guilt can be so complex.

Understanding What Survivor’s Guilt Is

Survivor’s guilt occurs when someone has experienced a traumatic event in which others were killed, yet they lived. This can happen on a small-scale, such as surviving a car accident while another perished.

However, a large-scale tragedy can amplify the distress. There are news reports, video, and interviews with the loved ones of those who died. And those who are left behind may ask themselves: “Why me?”

It is a very human phenomenon: trying to apply reason to something that is completely irrational. Thus, survivors are often left with a great deal of pain and emotional distress.

Questions that will always be left unanswered…

Besides “Why me?” survivors of large-scale tragedies can have other questions and doubts.

For example:

  • “What could have happened if…?”
  • “Why could I have done (or didn’t do) differently?”
  • “If only I had done something else, they would still be here.”
  • “Was there a sign or indicator something was about to happen that I didn’t see?”

As you can see, survivors will often ask themselves many questions about how things turned out. Yet, they will never get the true answers they are looking for. Rather, these questions and doubts can haunt them for years, even decades, after the tragedy has occurred.

Coping with the Randomness of It All

The randomness of the situation can really get to survivors or tragedies. For example, imagine this scenario: A person walking down the street on their way to work decides to stop to pick up a newspaper and coffee. This might be outside of their typical routine. Yet, this simple and seemingly innocuous choice saves them from a disaster.

There are many stories of people avoiding the events of 9/11 simply because they missed their flight or were late to work at the Twin Towers. These moments might be chalked up to happenstance, fate, luck, or even the work of a divine power. It is very human for us to need to find reason in events that are completely random, yet also tragic.

Relating to the Experience of Survivor’s Guilt

Even if you have never experienced survivor’s guilt due to a large-scale tragedy, you still can support someone who has.

For example, you can…

  • …listen to their story.
  • …avoid passing judgment.
  • …refrain from trying to “make sense of it all.”
  • …show empathy.

If you are having trouble relating, take a step back for a moment. Think of a moment in your own life where you felt powerless or unable to effect change.

What was that experience like? Did you have doubts about yourself or the outcomes afterward?

Use this as a way to emphasize with survivors. Don’t use words such as “I understand where you’re coming from.” Rather, acknowledging that you hear them and validating what they have said will mean a lot more than “pretending” that you get it.

The human mind is designed to make sense of the world around us. It takes in information and processes it, which allows you to make choices. When events such as a large-scale tragedy unfold, it will still try to process. This, despite the fact that surviving mass-scale tragedies often has little to do with logic.

If you or someone you know has been through such an experience and is struggling, consider getting professional help. Please, contact us if you’d like more information on how we could give you support.





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