Guilt for being alive when someone you care
about has died is sometimes one of the dimensions
of grief. It may be experienced in anticipation
of someone's death or afterwards and it may
be felt by those with or without cancer. Other
symptoms of grief may include anxiety, helplessness,
hopelessness or even relief. Death might act
as a catalyst where the search for answers begins
in an attempt to understand why one person lives
and another dies. ¹
For those with a family member or friend diagnosed
with cancer, survivor's guilt may be the result
of identifying with that person and may heighten
fears about death. When we lose loved ones to
cancer, sometimes the effect may be to withdraw
in our other relationships, or a reluctance
to befriend any other person with cancer. Although
this reluctance is understandable, it is important
to realize what might be lost are the benefits
of having a close connection to another person,
even if the relationship, because of death,
may end sooner than planned. ²
Gilda Radner deals with the question in, "It's
Always Something." In it she writes "the
hardest part of becoming friends with people
was learning later that someone who had become
close had died. The course of cancer isn't always
what we hope. I was learning that death is a
part of life. But if I hadn't ... think of all
the love I would have missed." ³
For those dealing with survivor's guilt, it's
important to acknowledge feelings of grief,
acceptance and adjustment to the loss.
1. Ask yourself how you feel
and be as honest as you can with your grief
or guilt. The best time to deal with this begins
when you first start experiencing the feelings.
In doing so, you will be better able to cope,
as denial just delays the issue. Also, realize
you may not grieve the same way for each death
you experience, and that's okay too.
2. Using grief as a period
for practicing self-care will help you work
towards acceptance of your loss. Ask yourself
what you need, so you can express your feelings
and soothe your pain. Participate in rituals
of grieving and remember to say goodbye. It
is important to talk about or think about the
deceased and your relationship to them. Write
a note, share your thoughts about the deceased,
attend a funeral or celebration of life. If
you find yourself grieving many deaths, reach
out to others with the same circumstance. Build
those supports. Dragon boat teams comprised
of cancer survivors enact a lovely ritual after
their races of throwing pink flowers overboard,
in remembrance of team members who've died.
3. Know how to reach out
for help and where to look for support. Most
bereaved individuals recover from their loss
with help from family, friends and spiritual
advisors. However, if you experience persistent
feelings of depression or anxiety, professional
help may assist you moving through the grief.
4. Re-invest energy into
once again experiencing life. Some find meaning
through community events such as fund raising
for research, social activism and volunteerism.
Survivor's guilt is an experience to be acknowledged,
not a problem to be avoided. It's critical to
be open to feel the complex dimensions of grief
while remembering the gifts of attachment and
a greater connection to others.
1. Holland, J.C. & Lewis,
S. (2000). The Human side of cancer: Living
with hope, coping with uncertainty. NY: HarperCollins.
2. Benjamin, H.H. (1995). The
Wellness Community. Guide to fighting for recovery
from cancer. NY: Tarcher/Penguin.
3. Radner, G. (1989). It's always
something. NY: HarperCollins.
4. Tocher, M. (2002). How to
ride a dragon: Women with breast cancer tell
their stories. Toronto, Ontario: Key Porter.
5. Chochinov, H.M., Holland,
J.C., & Katz, L. Y (1998). Bereavement:
A special issue in oncology. Psycho-oncology
(pp.1016-1032). NY: Oxford.