Survivor Guilt

In the days and weeks following my family’s airplane crash, people kept assuring me I’d be fine. “You’re young,” they’d say. “You’ll bounce back in no time.” It would be a different story for my parents, these same people confided. A parent should never have to bury his child. One day when I had children of my own I’d understand, they promised. Losing a sister just wasn’t the same. And I still had my whole life ahead of me. I was lucky to be alive!

I listened. I tried to feel lucky. But all I could think was: Nancy is dead. I wasn’t even wearing my seatbelt. Why am I still here?

When my father told me he wished Nancy had been the one to survive, the guilt bloomed inside of me like a fungus. Gradually, I made myself a living corpse. I took shallow sips of air I didn’t deserve to breathe. I slogged through heavily freighted days.

Survivor syndrome emerged in the 1960s as psychotherapists began to identify a pattern of symptoms present in Holocaust survivors: depression and persistent anxiety, social withdrawal, emotional numbness, nightmares, mood swings, loss of physical drive. Survivors of natural disasters, warfare and terrorist attacks often suffer the same conditions. Our traumas differ, but we shoulder a common guilt at having lived through the horror that killed others around us.

I was forty years old when I finally began to invite myself back to life. First my therapist gave me the words “survivor guilt.” Then she gave me the eye movement therapy EMDR. (Hang on to your hats. There is much to come about EMDR in subsequent posts.)

Six months into therapy I wrote in my journal: “If everything I do has to be good enough to justify my LIFE, my having been allowed to live when Nancy died, how do I even get out of bed in the morning?” I was beginning to plumb the depths of my guilty self-punishment. Beginning to sense that every single day might not require me to defend my existence.

At the same time, I was realizing that my second father was not the only one who wanted to negate my life. My earliest childhood memories predate the plane crash by at least a decade. In them, my first father tells me again and again that my life has no value. To him or anyone else.

Survivor guilt gave me language to explore a big part of what had happened in my life. It helped explain why I behaved as if I didn’t deserve to occupy my own skin. But there was more. That guilt was compounded by the message I received from both of my fathers: We don’t want you.

My journal entry ended this way: “I’ve been raised by men who, given the choice, wouldn’t have had me live. Now I have to grow up, grow out from under them, grow past them, tell them to BACK OFF because I’m here to stay.”

Diagram of a Family


family, trauma and healing blog

You’ve seen the stick-figure decals, custom made for the rear window of your SUV. The family is lined up tallest to smallest: Dad, Mom, kids, dog, cat. I guess some family stories are that straightforward. There’s no death and remarriage, no divorce, no adoption, no half-brothers or step-sisters.

My story is thornier.

I was the last of my father’s children. He had a fatal heart attack at age 59, when I was six years old and my mother was 36. He’d married her soon after his first wife died. My father was a doctor, and before she became his wife, my mother was his secretary. She was only six years older than my father’s eldest son, my half-brother Allon.

After my father died, my mother remarried. We’d lived in Maine all my life, but my mother and my brother Bruce and my sister Sue and I moved to Massachusetts to live in my new father’s house. He’s a doctor too. My first father used to bring my mother to see him as a patient. Our new father legally adopted Bruce and Sue and me, but not my brothers Allon and Tedd. They were married with children of their own.

Like my mother, my new father had been married before. He and his wife had adopted two children, a boy and a girl. When they divorced, the boy, who was still a baby, had to be returned to the orphanage because his adoption had not been finalized. The girl, Nancy, stayed with my father. He fought his ex-wife for sole custody and won. When my mother married my second father, Nancy became my little sister.

Try putting that family on a decal.

When I was sixteen and Nancy was twelve, she died in a plane crash. My father was flying the plane. He and my mother and Nancy and I were on our way home from visiting my brother Tedd in Maine. After we crashed and the police and firefighters found us, the others were pulled out quickly, but I was stuck in the wreck. My arm was pinned beneath the engine. They wanted to cut it off to get me out.

When I was nineteen, my father told me he wished I had died in that crash and Nancy had lived.

My memoir, Every Moment of a Fall (Schaffner Press, May 2016), is about the depression that seized me in the wake of these events, and about how I eventually found a way out through talk therapy and EMDR. The transformation in me has encouraged my siblings to seek their own healing from the deep scars that mark us as family.

Complicated or not, we’re like a lot of other families rocked by narcissism, sexual predation, neglect. I’d like to think that our unfolding story holds out hope. Not for some regressive fantasy of familial unity. But for the genuine release that comes from linking arms and facing down hard truths together.