Survivor’s Guilt

I ran away.

I did not lose my house.  I was not in the mandatory evacuation zone.  Yet, after 4 days in the smoke, living just miles away from the flames destroying my town, I left.  I don’t wan’t to tell anyone that.  Mine was not a story of heroism.  But also, mine was not a story of staying until I cracked under the pressure and lost my temper on a hapless customer service employee.  Everyone has a story.  Mine was a story of self-preservation and family-preservation.

I feel guilty about that.

I’ve been hearing a lot of my friends saying they feel guilty; they wonder how they can complain while others have lost absolutely everything.  They wonder why their house was spared when others lost everything.  They wonder what do in the midst of such devastation.

I know friends who left too.  These people have NOT lost everything, yet they are staying with family in Turlock, San Leandro, and as far away as Oregon.  I know friends who left to Santa Cruz and Monterey because their children had respiratory problems due to smoke inhalation.  I know friends who were evacuated to different parts of the county, displaced for nearly a week.  And I know far, far too many friends whose houses burned to the ground that first night of the firestorm, when the winds blew the flames for miles in a matter of minutes.

I have seen families open their homes to the evacuated: cooking big batch meals, and inflating air mattresses on living room floors.  Restaurants have offered free meals, high-end cafes have offered free coffee, Cellular providers have offered unlimited calls and texts the week of the crisis, and indoor play places have offered free admission to kids stuck at home since the schools closed.

Much good has been bubbling to the surface of our humanity.

But also much guilt too.

And I wanted to touch on that.

Guilt is for prompting a person to feel remorse over something bad they did to someone.  The healthy response then would be to apologize, and make amends if possible.

Guilt should come when you’ve done something wrong.  It has to do with blame.

And therein lies the belief under the feeling:  there should be someone to blame for all of this.  There should be a guilty party.  But when a person tries to squeeze the idea of justice onto a catastrophic natural disaster, the shoe never fits.  The amount of suffering and loss of property from these fires is unprecedented.  The toll it has taken on the residents is overwhelming.  Yet, there is no guilty party to blame.  It just happened.

When we experience “survivor’s guilt,” we try to fill the blame void by turning inward.  In an unspoken way, we claim that it must be me.  It must be my fault that I was spared when others were not.  It doesn’t make logical sense, but it’s a reaction that tries desperately, although inappropriately, to make sense of things.

But, thankfully, we are not that powerful.

I could feel guilty all I want, but the reality is: I did not create the strong winds.  I did not cause a rainy winter 6 months ago that grew much more grass than normal, creating a much thicker undergrowth as fuel.  I did not invent the combustive properties of dry foliage.  All these factors are completely out of my control.

From the other side of the coin, expressing survivor’s guilt does not help the person who truly lost everything.  It offers nothing.  It’s a way for me to keep my eyes locked firmly on myself, when I feel too afraid to look into the depths of their suffering.  I would even say that my fear of suffering is a fair and valid feeling, as long as I own it, instead of hiding behind well-meaning guilt.  But the friend who lost everything needs my care.  I can only offer that when I take my eyes off myself.

We in Sonoma and Napa County are feeling raw right now.  As the enormity of this disaster unveils, we will need each other for love and support.  But we cannot love and support every single person.  I can just hear everyone with my same “savior complex” sigh in collective frustration.  But let’s remember who we are responsible to: our spouses, children, and family.  Let’s remember our neighbors, and friends.  And instead of focusing on ourselves and being paralyzed with survivor’s guilt, let’s open our eyes to the dear loved ones entrusted to us, and see what we can realistically do.  When we see each other with both eyes open, we are in a good position to do something both meaningful and memorable, out of a heart of love, not guilt.

“Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”  2 Corinthians 9:7

 

Posted by

Steph Lenox loves sharing her emotional tool box with moms, helping them build the unique lives God designed them to live. When away from her desk, she and her husband chase around their young children in Northern California.

42 thoughts on “Survivor’s Guilt

  1. Thank you for this. I too ran. I too have been trying to cope with my feelings of guilt, as well as acknowledging how important it is to practice self-care and self-preservation. My house is unscathed but my home continues to burn and it like no other pain I’ve ever experienced. Much love, stay safe. The love truly is thicker than the smoke.

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  2. This is perfectly written to express for uy’s what we struggle to say. Thank you. God’s blessings are abundant if we open our eyes and hearts. We are given strength to help others.

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  3. Great post, and I totally understand the guilt part of all this, I have a home in Santa Rosa, my cousin is renting it, and its fine, on the west side of SR, we have a home in the southwest desert in Arizona, I have 2 children that both have homes in SR that were not in an evacuated zone too. I am still fighting the urge to drive back, by Monday night I had cried a thousand tears for my friends and family in this disaster area. I had many friends who have lost everything and others who were evacuated but unable to get back to there home. Please do not beat yourself up, self preservation is just as important for oneself. I know many people who left town, I believe that the disaster crews would of loved if everyone would of left. I am happy your safe and whole, its like you said that, you didn’t create the winds, the fire, the devastation. This is just what happens to some, of course we never think its going to be our home town. I am so sorry for all those effected by this. There really are no words to be said. I will be back in the Santa Rosa area over the holidays and am looking forward to giving everyone lots of love and hugs….kathy

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  4. I feel guilty too…but for a different reason. I neglected to complete the insurance information on the mobile home I purchased for my son to live in. Thus there was no coverage for all of his expensive musical equipment that took him a life time to accumulate, or the contents of the home. He’s angry, & rightfully so. I have no one to blame but myself, & I have to deal with my financial losses, & his anger at his loss. It’s not easy being a mom, no matter how old your children are. It’s a life time job as long as we take a breath.

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      1. The losses are that are financial can eventually be overcome, The emotional losses take a little longer. My son is getting back to his “normal” as friends, family, & I try to replace his musical equipment. He’s already written a son about his life being spared.
        He says he feels like a millionaire because he’s alive.
        That’s how I feel…so very blessed that God spared his life and the smoke alarm woke him in time to escape the flames that surrounded him.
        With gratitude…
        Rosemarie

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    1. If you purchased a mobile home for him and he was able to accumulate expensive music equipment, then maybe HE should have been responsible for completing and paying for the insurance.

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      1. The equipment was purchased from the time he was 18 through out the years he did sheet rocking for a living. He is now on disability, & pays the rent at the mobile home park & utilities. At $800.00 a month he barely gets by. I didn’t get the insurance information back to the agent promptly. Thats why I feel guilty.

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      2. It was a life time accumulation, nothing recent.
        He’s on disability…barely getting by after paying the parks rent, & utilities. $800.00 a month income doesn’t go very far theses days here in Santa Rosa.
        He isn’t on welfare nor does he receive food stamps.

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    2. Sorry to hear from your loss
      How old is your son?; is he incapacitated in anyways?
      Did he realize how lucky he is to have a mom who cared enough to buy him a place to live. maybe he could have thought about insuring his musical equipment himself as well as the place he had the chance to leave in….

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      1. He is 58 and on disability…He couldn’t afford the rent in our area. (A single bed room was $800.00 to $1,000.00 a month. Had I not bought the home he would be out on the streets along with a lot of other homeless people. Yes, he does appreciate my buying the home for him…His anger was at his loss, it was emotionally devastating to him. I understand that…

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  5. Stunning, well said so full of soul thank you.

    I couldn’t even help when we “chose” to evacuate because of my breathing issues. Helpless feels awful. Useless – frustrating.

    And when the smoke clears and we are no longer looking at smoke, testing the wind and hoping to be spared, our Winery will try to give back to the Valley in some way by opening and encouraging people that there is so much resilience up here to share.

    Your survival is a strength . A beautifully written strength.

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  6. Steph, thank you. This is beautifully stated and a stark reminder of what we need to be doing. All eyes on Him, and He will show us His way!

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  7. You really touched on many feelings I’ve been feeling and feeling “guilty” about. Thank you for the perspective and a renewed want to help rather than avoid.

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  8. Beautifully written. I’m a survivor/ didn’t lose anything. Friends did. My self care has been to hold myself tight in the aftermath of being vigilant for a week and not get upset with myself because I’m feeling everyone’s pain and get tired very easily from the smoke. My initial assistance came in the form of social media posts practically non stop for the first two days. Then I had to start limiting as I could feel the toll it was taking. Going forward I will listen to the stories and help where I can. I might be running away but I know from past experiences my limitations. Thank you for writing such a beautiful blog. ❤️

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  9. Found this and it is perfect – for those of us in the same boat. Thank you for sharing your story! We all have one. You put this feeling many of us have into amazing heartfelt words.
    I didn’t run, but i didn’t leave my house much. I feel the guilt. But what i did do, is share valid information to my family and friends, from reputable news sources, the Law Enforcement sites, CalFire etc. I became an arm-chair reporter from my western Santa Rosa condo. I was also then able to validate information from those within the chaos so that those outside of it had a clear picture. Not everyone is on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, or even able to get on the internet. I heard so many pieces of wrong information, even on the news and strove to correct it within my circle. This is how i coped. I volunteer in 3 of these state parks that 2 of which have now been partially destroyed, I give information on places and things to do. I took that skill and put it to work. And that is just as important as getting out to a shelter, donating money or food or clothes. I had many of my friends who aren’t able to easily navigate the internet very happy for any tidbit. So many aren’t as tech savvy and that is okay. It is then up to those of us that are to help. So even though i have guilt for not stepping up in other ways, i remember to soothe myself that i did do something. I know what i did helped many. I am grateful i could do it. I would want have someone out there like me if i was in the place of being utterly without. In the weeks to come, our shoulders & ears need to be here to support the inevitable emotional response that will come. We need to listen, truly hear, we need to speak and trust that we can be heard. And we need to practice self-care. Remember to breathe, take a moment to just breathe in and out. No thoughts. It only takes a minute or less. Add those minutes up. Thank you again! ❤ ❤

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    1. I have no doubt those you were in contact with really appreciated your knowledge, and assistance.
      Meeting neighbors among the ashes of our homes made me wonder why we didn’t get to know them BEFORE our homes were totally gone. My son isn’t very out going and was a new resident at Journeys’s End. I told him in the future we need to go around and introduce our selves…From the ashes come knowledge.

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  10. Thank you for addressing Guilt. I lost my home in Coffey Park. I am devistated for my loss and even bigger loss for all of sonoma county. Please don’t feel guilty. This disaster has affected everyone in one way or another. I’m alive and my family is alive and I am so grateful for you, Sonoma county, my family and friends. It’s so important that we all move forward. Everyday gets better. I learned a long time a go that people you don’t know somewhere out there think about you and even pray for you. Now, that’s amazing.

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  11. Don’t feel guilty. Life is full of these unexpected moments. We lost our home but have gained a clean slate. Not the way I would have wished but an opportunity to rebuild and grow.

    The tragedy brings the best out in our community. This part of the tragedy is a gift.

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  12. There is suffering.
    I don’t know of any statement I can recall that is more true.
    As an older, retired, disabled first responder I have over the years witnessed my share of expressions of grief.
    A parent losing their partner and entire family in the blink of steel grinding steel.
    Loving parents learning their only child won’t ever arrive in their driveway home from the junior college just four miles away.
    I have experienced the screams of children who lost their beloved kitty in the chaos that was the firestormof2017. I have experienced being unable to extricate an innocent victim crushed in a vehicle engulfed in flames. Grief is not a contest. There is no rhyme nor reason in this dimension that can clear the pain all of us are feeling in our various situation. I have seen barely made it out survivors racked with remorse only to learn that they too had lost their home and contents.
    We are a strong community, stronger than we each discern in these unfathomable moments of our journeys.
    I was taught early in my Life that Volunteering, anywhere, doing anything, from visiting the Veterans Homes to
    walking dogs or playing with kitties at a shelter.
    Whatever you choose. It doesn’t have to be physical. You can volunteer from home. We have an amazing Volunteer Center here in Sonoma County.
    Take away. I kept busy since “that night” which shall not be named, volunteering to the very limit of my being. It has already demonstrated to me the kindness that envelops us here is astonishing to my soul. I have not “lost everything”. I am blessed to have survived the inferno that took an unprecedented number of lives including children. I will keep taking in each moment, breathing in the fresh cool breezes blanketing us now. I will enjoy the delight on children’s faces trick or treating in a local neighborhood that has pulled out all the stops, volunteering a safe and sane Halloween experience come one come all! God Bless Us All.
    Namaste.
    A grateful and humbled
    volunteer.
    KAT

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