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Guilt Because I Survived

Posted on Thu, 19 October, 2017

If you live in the Bay Area you have heard little else other than the devastating fires that ravaged our beloved wine country.  October is notorious for fire in California due to the strong, warm off shore winds, but this year was worse than ever.  As of Thursday October 19, 42 deaths have been reported, with a staggering 200+ people missing at one time, over 50 remain so. More than 186,00 acres burned including more than 5,700 structures. Of those structures, most were homes and many were the livelihoods of those people who lost their homes: wineries, local infrastructure like hotels and restaurants, mom and pop businesses.  It’s time to talk about the lesser known result of the fires, indeed many catastrophes: survivor’s guilt.

Guilt because I survived refers to the phenomenon of believing you have done something wrong by surviving a trauma when others have not. ‘Guilt because I survived’ or my home was spared or my family escaped.  It occurs in any and every tragedy you hear of, but is rarely discussed until you get in front of your therapist.  I am seeing an increase in survivor’s guilt due to the fires as the fickle nature of fire spares one neighbor’s home but demolishes the next.  I am also experiencing it myself as my family’s home in Napa survived but many neighbors did not.  Including that of one of my best friends.

Wine Country devastation, Photo credit Sacramento Bee

I am beginning to see the victims of the wine country fires in my practice, using EMDR to address the traumas of losing everything.  Including their identification they didn’t have time to take with them.  In the worst circumstances, family members that couldn’t outrun the fires.  There is a confusion and anger over the indiscriminate nature of what survived; “Why did their house make it?”  There is a relief that friends and neighbors made it out alive.  There is a catatonic approach to what to do next because of the overwhelm of fight/flight mode.

‘Guilt because I survived’ lasts as long as the PTSD that accompanies it in the victims who weren’t as lucky.  It parallels the process, triggering anxiety that racks functioning and sanity.  PTSD has the special ability to convince you that you are crazy, losing the rational perspective that accompanied you in daily life prior to the trauma. I also am starting to see the victims of the Las Vegas Route 91 concert shooting.  One in particular exhibits symptoms of survivors guilt after witnessing the girl behind her killed by the gunman.  Her inner dialogue is stuck on replay: “Why was I allowed to survive? Why didn’t she make it?”

There is no reason that you survived and the person next to you did not.  Logic doesn’t apply here.  Our capacity for empathy and need to attach to others for security and love enable survivors guilt.  When we feel grief and loss it is because we are trying to make sense of the sudden departure of something we held dear, that helped us identify parts of ourselves.  That’s true even for the strangers we respond to who are harmed around us in these traumas.

In my therapy practice I see the presence of grief and loss in many forms, and in the first responder population more significantly.  When their partners, crewmen and team members are hurt on the job or even unrelated to the job, it is felt with sincere and profound guilt.  One first responder I treat is plagued with guilt over surviving a brain tumor several fellow fire fighters have not survived.  In all of these cases I rely on EMDR to treat the underlying anxiety.  It is efficient, effective and powerful.  Most importantly, it is the only thing I have come across that breaks through the rock solid barrier the emotional brain constructs and obstructs the local brain’s ability to make sense of the trauma in reasonable terms.

When you talk to people who have survived a catastrophe, and let’s face it, tragedy occurs with such alarming regularity now it is more likely that you will, keep in mind the guilt of survivors and listen. Listen to the illogical responsibility they feel and ask if they have thought about changing it.  EMDR is the best form of therapy for trauma.



Jodi Klugman-Rabb is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Marin and Napa Counties. She specializes in connecting with clients on a humorous and practical level, helpful when specializing in ADHD, trauma and anger/communication skills. She uses EMDR to treat traumas and fears of all types. She is a wife of 18+ years and the mom of two funny and awesome kids. Connect with Jodi on her website or



One Response to Guilt Because I Survived

  1. Smithf573 says:

    You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it! cbddedekbggdeged

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A blog written by a hip, sometimes irreverent shrink who’s been around the block and calls it like it is

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