Surviving Survivors' Guilt

With all the recent tragedies - firefighter suicides, wildfires, Hurricane Dorian, firefighter homicide, etc. I felt that this article was fitting, and it is dedicated to all public safety workers near and far.

After a tragic event such as an earthquake, flood, tornado, other natural disasters, terrorism, or senseless shooting event, those who have survived, or those who have either witnessed or learned a lot about the event can suffer from “survivor’s guilt.” This can take the form of feeling extremely sad or depressed, feeling helpless and feeling as if your own undamaged self and lifestyle is a source of pain in itself when faced with the suffering of the many who have suffered so much loss. Survivor’s guilt has been found among rescue and emergency service personnel who blame themselves for doing too little to help those in danger.

Many therapists view survivor guilt as a secondary symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in that it doesn’t come directly from the original experience. It occurs later when a person who was somehow traumatized tries to get back to normal life, only to be sidetracked by such a secondary feeling of guilt.

If it goes unchecked, excessive guilt can lead to other problems such as depression, apathy, or generalized anxiety. We need to remember that guilt is a common reaction to loss, and as such, it can ultimately be part of the healing process. Here are some steps to assist you in overcoming “survivor’s guilt:”

  1. Understand that there is nobody to blame when nature vents her fury. Accepting this is essential because it allows you to see that everyone feels powerless when a terrible natural disaster event occurs that harms and kills many people. Nobody could have stopped it, and nobody is at fault. Sure, there will always be things that could have been done better, from improving building codes, adopting FEMA flood maps, to giving out more warnings, but the actual event itself will always stem from something over which human beings have little control.

  2. Minimize your media intake. If you find yourself getting upset by all the images, to the point of not being able to function or crying and feeling upset. Take a break from the television, newspaper, or media blogs until you feel a little better. Slowly start bringing media back into your life.

  3. Find ways to act constructively. From helplessness, turn to doing constructive activities that can help the victims. Whether you have suffered damage yourself but have survived the event intact or whether you are someone who lives nearby or someone who has read about it all unfolding online, feeling that you can help is an integral part of minimizing survivor’s guilt. If you have skills or knowledge that can directly assist those in need, offer your time. If you have medical, organizational, cooking, first aid, legal, accounting, animal welfare, counseling, child-minding, plumbing, electrical, building construction, etc. skills, all of these and more can help the people in need. Just plain old volunteering goes a long, long way to assist those who drastically need help.

  4. Be a donor. In a disaster situation, money is the best possible thing you can donate in our current times. Money enables people to purchase what is needed rather than being confronted by well-meaning with unhelpful donated items. When donating, please ensure that your money is going to reputable charities such as the American Red Cross, United Way, etc. If you want to donate items, wait until aid organizations and governments clarify precisely what is needed via their publishing lists.

  5. Check out Facebook groups or other social media groups. One of the things that are becoming increasingly obvious in recent disasters in the use of Facebook or other social media groups for leaving messages of condolences, support, and friendship. People are reaching out to one another across countries to send their wishes and courage to others and to let them know that they are not alone.

  6. Stay in touch with people you know in the disaster area. Even if you cannot physically help them, you can help them emotionally by talking to them by phone, emailing them, and sending them anything they might need. Let them know how much you love and care about them and that there is always a bed at your house if it becomes too much for.

  7. Rediscover your sense of humor. While natural disasters are terrible events and are not a joke in themselves, many survivors find strength in joking about the manner in which they are coping. After all, having to dig toilet pits in your backyard because the plumbing and electricity no longer work is either something you can cry about or laugh about, and the laughter will raise your spirits more. If you are not in the disaster yourself, recognize the sense of humor of survivors as a coping mechanism, not a form of belittling the event and support their endeavors to stay strong through the humor.

One Major Tip That We Can All Relate To
If you weren’t involved in the natural disaster, terrorist act, or senseless shooting, but it makes you feel more vulnerable, use it as a wake-up call to prepare your own needs for keeping safe should a similar event occur where you are. Being proactive about developing a survival kit and making disaster plans with your family can provide you with a sense of reassurance that you’re at least prepared. Additionally, be aware of your surroundings and report suspicious activity – If You See Something, Say Something!


Jo-Ann Lorber is an assistant chief/emergency manager for the city of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and is chair of the IAFC’s EFO Section. She has been with Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue since January 1996. Chief Lorber holds many degrees, including a master's degree in public administration from Florida Atlantic University.

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