When suspected gunman James Holmes opened fire at the sold-out midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” starring Christian Bale at the Century 16 Theaters in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 innocent victims and injuring another 58 people, heroes were made in the early hours of that morning. Four men died protecting their girlfriends: Alexander Teves, 24, John Larimer, 26, Matthew McQuinn, 27, and Jon Blunk, 26, died saving (respectively) Amanda Lindgren, 24, Julie Vojtsek, 23, Samantha Yowler, 26, and Jansen Young, 21. And, while just-turned 17-year-old Stephanie Rodriguez was not injured in the melee, she did stop to assist 27-year old Carey Rottman, who, struck down by a bullet in his leg, had managed to get himself to the movie house’s parking lot, where he collapsed and began shouting for help. Stephanie took off her belt and used it as a tourniquet around his leg, compressing the bleeding by pushing her hands to his thigh as she had seen so often on “Grey’s Anatomy.” Meanwhile, her brother ran and got a police officer who rushed Carey to the hospital where he underwent successful treatment for his wound.
These individuals were indeed heroes in every sense of the word. But for the four girlfriends who were saved that night as well as for Stephanie — who, during the mass confusion of the people scurrying out of the theater during the shooting, witnessed a woman lying in the aisle of the theater, face up with her eyes closed and whom Stephanie could not help — the possibility that each may suffer from survivor’s guilt is real.
Survivor’s guilt is a recognized form of grief that can be especially painful. It is a psychological syndrome in which a person believes that he or she has done wrong by surviving a traumatic situation that claimed the lives of others while he or she has lived to tell about it. Although anyone can experience this phenomenon including patients, families, and healthcare providers, survivor guilt has been described in Holocaust survivors, war veterans, rescue workers, transplant recipients, and relatives spared from hereditary illness. Many survivors of 9/11 experienced this disorder.
Those experiencing this particular form of grief often torture themselves with unfair and unending questions, such as “Why me,” or “What could I have done to prevent the catastrophe in the first place,” or “What could I have done to possibly have helped more victims survive”? These people may feel guilty without even being consciously aware of it. But deep down they may be questioning whether or not their survival was actually due to self-interest; perhaps they should have offered themselves instead; or they feel that they are totally undeserving of the blind good fortune that spared them.
Unresolved survivor’s guilt can result in a multitude of problems including the onset of mental health difficulties, delaying trauma recovery, or hindering the grieving process. To move past this, for those in the grips of survivor’s guilt, it is best to acknowledge and accept that guilt exists. Feelings of guilt are quite common and represent part of the healing process for persons coping with loss. Use this opportunity to recognize the reawakening of old issues and feelings of unworthiness that the survival may have ignited; embrace life; reassess your life and values; know that it is okay to delight in being alive; reassess your talents and your purpose for being alive.
Remember that you are human…and humans grieve.