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Navigating the Heartache of Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor’s guilt is a sinking, hopeless feeling that’s plagued by self-blame, powerlessness and regret. Whether you lost a child, a spouse, a parent or a friend to addiction, addiction-related deaths are incredibly tragic and heart wrenching.

Unanswered Questions

After a loved one succumbs to their addiction, family and friends typically grapple with a destructive internal dialogue of self-blame. What could I have done? Why couldn’t I help? What did I do wrong to cause this?

Although these questions are irrational, this response is natural when a death seems both senseless and, perhaps, avoidable. Spurred by feelings of self-blame and regret, these unanswerable questions are a by-product of survivor’s guilt.

Finding Your Way Through the Pain

Although nothing may truly heal the loss of a loved one, these four tips can help you to navigate through the heartache of survivor’s guilt.

    • Talk to Someone

      Talking to a professional grief counselor or therapist can be highly beneficial. A trained therapist will challenge your irrational feelings of guilt and offer a more accurate perception to the situation. Although seeking a professional is advised, talking to a close friend or family member can also be helpful. Survivor’s guilt leads many to withdraw from others, but talking openly to someone will reduce feelings of isolation and helplessness.


    • Restore a Sense of Normalcy

      Although this may take some time, it is important to return to normal everyday routines after the grieving period. This includes work, hobbies, exercise routines, recreation and other day-to-day activities. Initially, “normal life” may seem impossible, and you may not find the usual joy that accompanies these activities. However, returning to a normal routine will distract you from irrational guilt and fight feelings of powerlessness.


    • Connect with Support Networks

      Whether it’s friends, family, your place of worship or work associates, it’s important to quickly reconnect with your support networks. This is especially true if those close to you are experiencing the same loss. For example, if you’ve lost a spouse, connect with your children. If you’ve lost a child, connect with your spouse. You are their support and vice versa. Attending grief support groups within the community may also be highly beneficial.


  • Help Others

    By helping others in similar situations, you will begin to lose the feeling of powerlessness, and positive actions can give meaning to a seemingly meaningless tragedy. Whether it’s volunteering within the recovery community or simply sharing your story, helping others may be key to overcoming survivor’s guilt. Over time, it is possible to transform guilt into strength, which may be incredibly helpful and inspiring to others.

Talking About the Good (and Bad) Feelings

Without question, losing a loved one is the most difficult experience in life. When an addiction-related death occurs, it’s difficult not to feel regret, remorse or an immense amount of guilt. However, it’s imperative not to succumb to an irrational sense of responsibility.

By openly expressing yourself, restoring a normal routine, seeking support and helping others, you can slowly change your focus from the tragedy of the past to the resilience of the present.

If you do try to answer the unanswerable questions of survivor’s guilt, try to do so truthfully. Most likely, there were many instances you succeeded in preserving safety, health, love and life. There are no real answers to true tragedies.

Additional Reading: Letting Go: How Grief Keeps Us Shackled to Addiction

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