Surviving Survivor’s guilt

Van-by Forrest cavale

Have you ever felt guilty about feeling guilty?

Example: We had an old Dodge van that we drove for years while raising our young family, frequently nursing it back to health. I was driving it late one night and instead of driving directly home, I pulled into a brightly lit gas station to fill up the tank.

I mindlessly filled the tank, climbed back into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition key. The van wouldn’t start. Not one cough or sputter. It was towed home and finally, deemed beyond repair. I felt guilty about that van; it was working fine until I stopped to put gas in it. I admit that the idea of me being the catalyst for its breakdown is illogical, and I shouldn’t feel that way. So-that means that I feel guilty because I feel, well, guilty for feeling needless guilt about the demise of an old green van.

Here is another truth—I have been struggling with “survivor’s guilt.” I’ve felt some relief from this recently due to some insights by Mike Verano, a licensed professional counselor and cancer survivor. The basis of my guilt also stems from cancer along with instinctive, protective desires.

I’m the eldest daughter in a large family. Growing up, I experienced a collection of medical events, the first being surgery at age two. By the time I was a young mother in my thirties, it was my personal assumption that I was the family “Medical Anomaly”.

The day my younger brother, a happily married new father, called to tell me that he had thyroid cancer I was stunned. My immediate reaction was guilt and sorrow. I was the big sister, I was the medical “weirdo” in the family–it should be me that had the cancer, not him. Our family was again struck with emotion when within a few years; my younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer. Again, I felt that sense of wrong-ness, it was not in my script of life for my little sister to have cancer.

My guilt kept companionship with my worry and prayers for each of them as their years of remission and treatments passed like a roller coaster. Each of them had children to care for and jobs and life.

My brother’s cancer was in remission for a few years, but he died after a final medical struggle leaving a wife and four young children. My sister was a cancer Warrior, having years of pro-active health during remission and fighting strongly during seasons of metastatic cancer. She died after her second bout of Stage IV cancer. She was 54, a young grandma with her youngest child still in High School.

The month before my sister died, I had a tiny nodule of thyroid cancer removed. My own cancer diagnosis and the ease at which it was removed surprised me. I didn’t even need after surgery radiation treatment. And I felt the irony–my younger brother and sister each died after years of tremendous suffering and courageous living.

My awareness of having survivor guilt did not lessen its hold on me. When I read the post by Mike Verano at I felt my burden lighten.

He explains, “When the element of having done something wrong is added to the questioning of one’s survival, we end up with survivor’s guilt…When the question ‘Why did I get cancer?’ becomes ‘Why did I survive cancer, while others did not?’ the guilt reflex is turned on its head. What is there to feel guilty about? No offense has been committed, no moral code broken and no failure of duty took place…What purpose is served by calling into question the right to awaken to yet another day?”

Here is a three-step model for surviving survivor’s guilt that Verano uses with his clients:

“Step 1 is to name it: …By asking clients to give a name to the guilt trip they’re on, they’re released from feeling that it is the result of some personal character flaw.Step 2 is to claim it: Owning the times when we’re victimizing ourselves with the guilt experience is much easier than trying to ignore, resist and fight.Step 3 is to reframe it: … Once we cast a painful experience in a more positive light, we drain it of its power. Ultimately, survivor’s guilt arises from compassion for others and the desire to end suffering.”

Verano has even found the good side of survivor’s guilt. He points out, “In an attempt to scratch the guilt itch, many people go on to take on causes, donate to charities, seek cures, and, yes, even write blogs. As someone who experiences this phenomenon every time I show up at my oncologist’s office for my follow-up visits, my personal mantra is: ‘I survived cancer, and I’m guilty of wanting the same for others.’”

I know that my brother and sister would want me to live joyously. God is the scriptwriter of life, not me. I have survived cancer, and I’m guilty of wanting the same experience for others.

Here’s a link to the whole article–

About AndreaSings

Jazz singer. Mom. Designer. Non-cook who loves cheesecake and chocolate truffles. Avid Reader, Writer...Love speaking in public. Lives with husband and shiny black Great Dane. Missing my kids.
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