Survivor’s Guild and The Showboat Affair
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders today includes “survivor’s guilt aka survivor’s syndrome” and mentions it as a symptom of PTSD or post-traumatic stress syndrome. Wikipedia defines in (in part) as “a deep feeling of guilt often experienced by those who have survived”. The condition found its first application among Holocaust survivors.
This guilt has many triggers:
· A catastrophe such as a natural disaster with loss of life and property
· A man-made catastrophe such as war where many die
· Death by suicide
· Natural death
I can speak to the reality of this “syndrome” because, although I consider myself mentally and emotionally stable, I live with it each and every day of my life.
On December 30, 1978, my husband, an experienced pilot/aviation manager for an oil-related company, received a call instructing him to make a flight. It was an unnecessary trip, and the weather was iffy. I took him to the airport and watched him walk away. “See you later,” I said. But I never saw him alive again.
I still ask myself if I could have said or done something to persuade him not to go. Despite being IFR-rated and experienced, he usually refused to fly in poor weather conditions. So why did he make this trip? I’ll never know, although I have a pretty good idea. I could have said, “You know the weather’s bad. If you get fired for refusing the trip, we won’t starve.”? But he appeared obviously irritated over the situation, and I always tried to keep things calm before he flew so he’d have his entire attention on the task at hand.
But what if I’d said that? What if I’d put my arms around him and said, “Don’t go. The boys and I need you.”?
I didn’t, and he went.
The tragic irony is, he remained silent and preoccupied throughout the drive to the airport. Finally he said, “I’ll try to get in at the other airport so you won’t have to wake the boys to come after me.” (The other smaller airport where he was based wasn’t controlled, so any IFR flights had to be made from the main airport. However, he’d had to land at that airport earlier in the week, and his truck remained at the uncontrolled airport.)
And I flippantly replied, “No, I don’t mind. I’d rather come after you then identify your body.”
He laughed then and said, “Oh, you would, would you?”
That was that.
The truth is, few circumstances are under our complete control. What we say or what we do may alter one situation but leave another unchanged. Second-guessing, re-thinking, and self-recrimination are part of the human condition. We just have to deal with them based on our own psychological make- up. Feeling I had no other choice with children to raise and bills to pay, I dealt, like it or not.
Both Nick and Jean found themselves troubled by a form of survivor’s guilt. Nick’s beloved wife and the mother of his son, died too young of breast cancer. Though he went into debt to provide the best medical treatment available, he couldn’t save her, nor could he understand her death and the devastation of soul and spirit it caused him.
Jean’s husband Rand had been unfaithful almost since the day they married. She knew it, accepted it as her due, and lived with it. Still, when after thirty-three years he told her to file for divorce, she wondered what she’d done to cause the marriage to fail.
To assure their relationship would flourish, Nick and Jean had to move on. They found they could share their feelings and comfort each other. In the end, they put the past—at least the bad memories-behind them.
I had no one to talk to. Anger is part of the grief process, and for a while I felt angry with Jim for dying and leaving on my own. The one and only time I said the words aloud, my mother pounced on me. “It wasn’t his fault!” No, of course, it wasn’t—but was it mine?
Still, I learned to comfort myself and thus, eventually, moved on. But the survivor’s guilt will, I feel certain, lurk in the darkest recesses of my mind for as long as I live. It can stay there, because I’ve learned to live in the light. Thank God.